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VALENTINES AND MURDER (The Darling Deli Series Book 30), page 1


VALENTINES AND MURDER (The Darling Deli Series Book 30)

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VALENTINES AND MURDER (The Darling Deli Series Book 30)




















  Book Thirty


  The Darling Deli Series


  Patti Benning

  Copyright 2017 Summer Prescott Books

  All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication nor any of the information herein may be quoted from, nor reproduced, in any form, including but not limited to: printing, scanning, photocopying or any other printed, digital, or audio formats, without prior express written consent of the copyright holder.

  **This book is a work of fiction. Any similarities to persons, living or dead, places of business, or situations past or present, is completely unintentional.

  Author’s Note: On the next page, you’ll find out how to access all of my books easily, as well as locate books by best-selling author, Summer Prescott. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my books, the storylines, and anything else that you’d like to comment on – reader feedback is very important to me. Please see the following page for my publisher’s contact information. If you’d like to be on her list of “folks to contact” with updates, release and sales notifications, etc…just shoot her an email and let her know. Thanks for reading!


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  Book Thirty in

  The Darling Deli Series


  * * *

  Moira Darling readjusted her pillow, shifting to get more comfortable on the couch. She was halfway through the second to last chapter of the last book in her favorite mystery series, and could hardly take her eyes off the page. There was a whole list of things that she had meant to get done that day, but it had all flown out the window when she’d decided to take a short break from housework and treat herself to a few pages. Now, hours later, the vacuum cleaner was still sitting in the middle of the living room, and her book was almost at its end.

  A cold nose pressed against her cheek. She reached out a hand to pet Maverick, her German shepherd, but he was already gone. She looked up, realizing that she hadn’t put the dogs out since late morning. Reluctantly, she marked her place and put the book down. The words on the page weren’t going anywhere; they would just have to wait until the dogs came back in.

  She opened the door in the mudroom and let the two of them into the backyard, then retreated to the kitchen where she began to make a fresh pot of coffee. She had skipped the cleaning earlier, but she still wanted to get it done tonight. With Darrin, the deli’s manager, out of town for a week and a half, things were about to get busy at work, and she knew she wouldn’t feel like picking up the broom after spending twelve hours on her feet in the kitchen at Darling’s DELIcious Delights.

  As the coffee maker began to gurgle, she opened the back door and let the dogs into the mudroom. She scratched Keeva, their Irish wolfhound, behind the ears, then slipped through the baby gate that she had installed between the mudroom and the kitchen. They could wait in there while the snow melted from their paws, instead of dripping all over the wood floors.

  She poured herself a cup of coffee, added a dollop of creamer and a spoonful of sugar, and was about to go into the living room to fetch her book when the dogs started barking. Glancing at the clock, she frowned. It was too early for David to be home; he was supposed to stop and pick up dinner on his way back from the office in Lake Marion. She hadn’t expected him for at least another hour, which would have given her just enough time to finish her book and get started on the cleaning she had put off.

  While she was in the middle of wondering who or what the dogs were barking at, she heard the familiar sound of her husband unlocking the door. Frowning, she put the coffee down and walked down the hall, wondering if something had gone poorly at his meeting. David was trying to find a business partner, someone who would take over most of the cases that came across his desk while he focused on the microbrewery he had opened the year before. She hoped that this last prospect hadn’t fallen through. He had been searching for almost a month, but no one had been the perfect fit yet, and she knew he was beginning to get frustrated.

  The door opened, and he saw her standing in the hallway. “I think I need a new key,” he said. “Mine keeps sticking.”

  “Is everything all right?” she asked. His hands were empty, besides the keys, which meant that he hadn’t stopped to get food.

  “Yes.” He grinned at her. Although she was still puzzled, her worry was melting away. “It went wonderfully, Moira. I think this guy will be the perfect fit. He has a lot of experience, he’s likable, and he has great references. He’s coming in tomorrow so we can talk more, but I already gave him the file for the first case he’ll be working on. We agreed on a two-week trial period to make sure we get along and that he’s the right fit.”

  “Oh, David, that’s wonderful,” Moira said, throwing her arms around him. “I’m so happy you finally found someone that you’ll be able to work with.”

  “Well, it’s a step. We’ll see how the trial period goes.”

  He kissed her, then moved her gently away so he could come the rest of the way inside and shut the door. Moira remembered that the dogs were still locked in behind the gate to the mudroom, and returned to the kitchen to release them so they could greet David.

  “Did you forget to pick up something for dinner?” she called out. “We might have something I can make here. We should celebrate.”

  She followed the dogs back down the hall to find David still standing on the welcome mat, wearing his boots and coat. “I didn’t forget; I thought you might want to go out. Like you said, we should celebrate, and it’s been a while since we’ve been to the Grill.”

  Moira smiled. The Redwood Grill was owned and run by one of her best friends, Denise Donovan. It was her favorite place to eat, other than her own deli, of course. David was right; it had been a while since they had eaten there; between his schedule, with him running two businesses and working on cases, and hers, they hadn’t had much time to go out together since Christmas.

  “That sounds like a perfect idea,” she said. “I’ll go throw something a little bit nicer on, then let’s get out of here.” Her book would have to wait.

  It was a Sunday night, and even though the Grill wasn’t at its busiest, there was a comfortable hum of conversation when Moira and David walked in the front door half an hour later. The hostess greeted her by name, and offered to show them to their favorite table near the kitchen.

  “Tell me the truth,” Moira said as they walked. “Does Denise — Ms. Donovan — keep this table reserved just in case we decide to stop by?”

  The hostess gave her a small smile. “It’s the last one we’re supposed to fill, so it’s usually empt
y unless we’re completely booked on reservations. She says she likes to be able to pop out of the kitchen to see her friends when they stop in.”

  Moira smiled back at her, feeling a little bit guilty that they hadn’t been coming in as much recently. She and David used to have a weekly date night at the restaurant, but had gotten out of that habit. Hopefully now that he wouldn’t be juggling two full-time jobs, they would have more time together. She tightened her grip on her husband’s arm. It was easy to get sucked into work and forget that making time for family and friends was just as important.

  “You know,” David said as they sat down, “Valentine’s Day is coming up. I was thinking we should do something special.”

  “Like what?” Moira asked, reaching for the wine menu.

  “We could go away for a couple of days,” he suggested. “We’ve both been so busy lately, it would be nice to have a mini-vacation. We’d find someone to watch the animals, and wouldn’t have any responsibilities at all. It would be nice.”

  The deli owner looked up from the wines. “You want to go on a trip? I wish you had brought it up sooner. I’d love to, but Darrin’s out of town, remember? He won’t be coming back until after Valentine’s day, and Jenny and Cameron have already asked for that evening off.” She lowered her voice. “Don’t tell anyone, but I think he’s going to propose to her.”

  “Well, I definitely don’t want to mess that up for them,” her husband said. “I forgot that Darrin was going to be gone. That puts it down to just you and Allison working there on Valentine’s Day, doesn’t it?”

  “Yes. I could see if she’d be all right working alone that evening, but it might be busy, so I don’t know if it would work out.”

  “How about that weekend?” he asked. “We could just do our normal date night on the day itself, then go out of town the weekend after.”

  “I think I could make that work,” she said, grinning. “Where do you want to go?”

  He chuckled. “I really haven’t planned that far ahead. What do you think?”

  “Let’s look online when we get back home,” she said, smiling at him. “We’ll find the perfect place together. We have a lot to celebrate, especially now that you’ve found a business partner. This is the start of a whole new chapter in your life.”

  He covered her hand with his. “It’s the start of a new chapter for both of us.”


  * * *

  Moira had never been an early riser, but running a restaurant that opened at seven in the morning meant that she had to make the occasional sacrifice. When her alarm went off at five-thirty the next morning, the sun was still nestled below the horizon. She reached over and turned it off. Beside her, David shifted, but didn’t wake. She slipped out of bed, whispering at the dogs to be quiet, and felt around for her slippers.

  Downstairs, she turned on the kitchen light and let the dogs outside. She fought back a yawn as she made coffee, then went into the living room to grab her book. She wouldn’t have time to read it before work, but with luck, it would be a slow day and she could finish it while she was sitting at the register.

  She was still half asleep as she got dressed and ready for work. She poured her coffee into a thermos to drink on the road, then left the house after a quiet goodbye to the dogs. Her husband wasn’t a morning person either, so on early mornings like these she did what she could to make sure he was able to sleep in. He would be up in a few hours to let the dogs out again and feed them breakfast before heading out to Lake Marion, where he would meet with his new business partner. I hope everything goes well, she thought. We need to invite the man over to dinner sometime; I want to meet him too.

  She was about to turn into the deli’s parking lot twenty minutes later when she saw something that shocked her so much that she drove right past the building she had worked in almost every day for years. The storefront next to the deli, which had been empty for months, had a brand-new sign over the door, and the front windows were glowing with light. Still gawking, she turned at the end of the block and looped around, parking in the deli’s lot and turning her car off in a hurry.

  Even though time was tight, and the deli was supposed to open in half an hour, she hurried across the snowy grass to the neighboring building, eager to see what sort of neighbors she had. She had known that the building had sold shortly after Christmas, but hadn’t seen anyone coming and going since. They must have done all of this work this past weekend, she thought.

  As she approached the building, she looked up at the sign. It read, Perfect Paws, with a trail of paw prints underlining the name. She was intrigued; she had been expecting another restaurant of some sort, or maybe a clothing shop. A pet store would be a very welcome addition to Maple Creek. It would be nice to be able to go right next door after work to grab dog food, instead of traveling all the way to the feed store, which was a few miles out of town.

  As she neared the door, it opened, and a young woman came out. She paused when she saw Moira. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but we aren’t open for business yet. I can run back inside and grab a pamphlet for you if you’d like, though.”

  “I’m actually the owner of the deli,” Moira said. She gestured to her building. “Sorry, I just got excited when I saw that someone had started work on this place. I’ve been looking forward to meeting my new neighbors.”

  “Oh.” The young woman brightened. “We actually have a gift basket for you. Come on in, you can meet my boss.”

  Moira followed her inside, unable to disguise her curiosity as she looked around the place. It was obvious that they were doing heavy renovating; the walls were half painted, there was drywall dust in the air, and uninstalled windows were leaning against one of the walls. Even so, she could already tell that the interior would be bright and spacious.

  “This looks like it will be wonderful,” she said. “What sort of stuff will you sell?”

  “Well, we’re primarily going to offer grooming and doggy daycare, but we’ll also sell homemade dog treats as well as some food and toys. Do you have pets?”

  “Two dogs,” Moira replied. “I’m looking forward to having a doggy daycare right next door to the deli. I’m surprised I haven’t heard anything about this place.”

  “We’ve been rushing to get everything ready,” the young woman said. “My boss plans to open by Valentine’s Day. I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”

  “Oh, I’m Moira Darling.”

  “Darling’s DELIcious Delights. Of course.” The young woman grinned. “I’m Penny. It’s nice to meet you.”

  “It’s nice to meet you too.”

  Penny opened a door and ushered her through. Moira found herself in a large, open room with a tiled floor and mats on the walls. Off to the right was a chain-link gate. Two men were installing the last few mats. One of them looked up, then said something to the other. They put the mat they were holding down and turned towards her and Penny.

  “Wyatt, this is Ms. Darling. She owns the deli, and stopped by to introduce herself.”

  The older of the two men approached them. He had brown hair and wore an easy smile. His most striking feature, however, was that he was wearing an eye patch. Moira tried not to stare, but knew that she was failing miserably.

  “Wyatt Merrick,” he said, extending a hand. “And this is Andre, my nephew.” The young man who had been helping him waved. “It’s nice to meet you. I was going to stop by later today, but it looks like you beat me to it. I’m sure Penny told you what this place is?”

  Moira shook his hand and tried to focus on his good eye. “Yes,” she said. “A doggy daycare. It’s a great idea.”

  “Don’t worry about the sound. These mats are for soundproofing, so you shouldn’t hear anything. We do have a small yard in back, but the dogs will be taken out individually and there’s a privacy fence, so it shouldn’t be an issue. We aren’t zoned for overnight boarding or anything.”

  “I’m not worried about the noise,” Moira assured him. She saw him rela
x a bit. “I just wanted to come say hi. I’m happy this building sold at last. If you want, I can put some of your business cards by the register at the deli.”

  He chuckled. “Well, we were going to ply you with a gift basket before asking that. Thank you, though. That’s a very nice offer, and we’ll definitely take you up on it.”

  “She has dogs,” Penny said.

  “Oh, you do? What breeds?”

  “I’ve got a German shepherd and an Irish wolfhound,” she said. “They’re good dogs.”

  “Well, if they do well with other dogs, you’re welcome to bring them here for daycare while you’re at work.”

  “I’d love to,” she said. She had often wished that she could bring the dogs to work with her occasionally, but knew that no matter how well behaved they were, it would never work out in a restaurant. “Sorry for interrupting, it looks like you guys are busy. I just wanted to say hi and see what sort of business this was. I should get going — the deli opens in about twenty minutes.”

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