| Chapter One|
(Read or print)
Annie Laurance Darling crouched on the floor by the coffee bar. She peered into a deep crack. Maybe if she got a skewer she could reach the silver bell. A skewer? This was a bookstore, not a culinary shop. Whatever made her think of skewers? Probably the box of Diane Mott Davidson books waiting to be unpacked. Readers loved books with sleuthing cooks at Christmas. Maybe she'd better order some more of the Katherine Hall Page and Janet Laurence titles. Annie popped to her feet, tried to push back a loop of yarn into her sweater and glared at Agatha.
"Agatha, this is my favorite Christmas sweater."
The elegant black cat lifted a languid paw, the same paw that an instant before had swiped swiftly through the air and ripped the silver bell from atop the green yarn Christmas tree on Annie's red sweater. Agatha tilted her head and looked for all the world as if she were smiling. Annie finally grinned.
"Okay. I don't blame you. It's what anybody deserves who goes around with a bell dangling from their front. Happy holidays, sweetie."
Annie reached out, carefully, and stroked the velvet-soft fur, then moved behind the wooden bar and poured Kona coffee into a mug. Each mug at the Death on Demand Mystery Bookstore carried the name of a famous mystery. This one emblazoned: MURDER FOR CHRISTMAS by Agatha Christie. She also had a mug with the English title: HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS. Annie held the warm mug and smelled that wonderful Kona aroma. How cheerful to think of lacy waterfalls and champagne music when it was cold and foggy outside. Annie loved the South Carolina Low Country and especially the barrier island of Broward's Rock, but even she had to admit that December, with its sharp winds and drab brown marshes, was a good time to stay inside, read wonderful mysteries (perhaps Renowned Be Thy Grave; Or, the Murderous Miss Mooney by P. M. Carlson, Death at Dearly Manor by Betty Rowlands or False Light by Caroline Llewellyn) and drink Hawaii's best coffee. December was also a good time for shelling, especially an hour or two after dead low tide. Yesterday she and Max had found channeled whelks and two lettered olive shells. The olive, South Carolina's state shell, was glossy with a pointed spire. Max had picked up the first olive and smiled.
"Hey, this one's perfect. A Low Country Christmas present just for us."
Annie grinned. She adored Christmas, but sometimes she thought Max loved the holiday even more. Last night they'd made red and green taffy and one evening soon they would whip up a batch of divinity. As far as Annie was concerned, there was never time enough in December to do all she wanted to do. There were boxes of books to unpack and a big stack of luscious bound galleys to read. Publishers sent out early paperback versions of forthcoming books to alert booksellers, and many of her favorite authors would have new books out in the coming year: Anne George, Harlan Coben, Peter Robinson, Deborah Crombie and Caroline Graham. Hmm, what riches. Her Christmas present to herself would be the time to savor these books. Annie picked up the fragrant coffee, happily drank. Christmas was her favorite season. She loved everything about it: the tangy scent of pine, decorating the tree, the lighting of an Advent candle at church each Sunday, buying presents and wrapping them, making divinity and pumpkin bread. After all, Max wasn't the only chef in the family....She put down the cup. Family. Christmas was a time for families. She'd always envied friends with big, sprawling, though sometimes noisy and cantankerous families. Her own memories were, perforce, of small gatherings. But happy ones. There were the years with her mother before she died. Later Annie had come to the island to spend the holidays with her Uncle Ambrose, a taciturn man who seldom spoke but whose every gesture to Annie spoke of love. These recent years, Christmases with Max. Dear Max, who always looked toward her when he entered the room and whose dark blue eyes held a special warmth that was for her alone. Dear Max, who was definitely not the Prince Charming she had imagined. Oh, of course he was charming and handsome and sexy, but he was light-years different from any spouse she'd ever envisioned when she was growing up. To be honest, she'd thought of someone like herself. serious, intense, hardworking.
"Agatha, have you ever heard of the Odd Couple?"
Agatha lifted her head to sniff the coffee mug, wrinkled her black nose.
Quickly, Annie said, "Well, we aren't that odd."
From the front of the store, Ingrid Webb, her longtime clerk and friend, called, "Annie, are you talking to that cat again?"
Annie called back, "Ingrid, she didn't mean to bite you."
"Humph." There was a slap of books being shelved.
Annie understood Ingrid's coolness. Of course Agatha had damn well meant to bite. Agatha was bright, quick, gloriously beautiful and exceedingly temperamental.
Annie bent down, whispered, "Agatha, you shouldn't have."
Agatha eyed the green-yarn Christmas tree on Annie's sweater.
Annie took a step back. Not, of course, that she was afraid of her own cat. But prudence prompted retreat.
Prudence. Yes, Annie knew she was prudent.
Max was not prudent, although he was too mellow ever to be reckless. Max didn't believe in schedules. When they traveled, he was always ready to turn down an enticing road even if it wasn't going in the right direction. He liked the unexpected. Max was handsome and fun and adventurous--and lazy? She brushed away the word. To be fair, Max was quite capable of intense and excellent work. It was only that he so rarely found any reason to work. Max was debonair and clever and kind. So, all right, he wasn't an overachiever. Okay, okay, he wasn't even an achiever.