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It’s Christmas in Estes Park, Colorado: cozy fires, twinkling lights, soft snowfall, and… murder.
The winter holidays in charming Estes Park lulls Winifred Page and her corgi, Watson, into thoughts of spiced chai and gingerbread as they settle into their new home. Fred’s dream bookshop is becoming a reality, and with Christmas only days away, her only concerns are spending time with family, enforcing Watson’s diet, and finding the perfect gifts.
The toy store beckons Fred and her friend Katie, who dash in out of the cold, during a shopping spree to discover handmade toys, cuddly stuffed animals… and a dying man on the floor.
When Katie’s desperate attempts to save the man ends in her being taken in for his murder, Fred once again dons her detective hat. She puts aside her Christmas list and—with Watson sniffing around—begins a list of suspects. But as quickly as clues point to one person, new discoveries shift the spotlight to another.
With Katie’s freedom in the balance, Fred has little time to think about gifts or to enjoy the holiday lights and music. A killer is on the loose, one who became violent in a picture-perfect Christmas toy shop, and Fred and Watson can’t begin to predict what might happen next…
Despite Watson’s sensitive nose, and the smell of recently varnished floors, we spent the entire day in the Cozy Corgi bookshop. When the motherlode of all deliveries arrived before noon, the majority of the books were at least within the walls of my store, and I now owned more than an empty building. Progress!
After having the sign hung, the floors and walls refinished, and all of the bookcases installed, I’d thought my dream shop was becoming a reality. But with mountains upon mountains of boxes of books taking up most of the large center room, it finally began to feel real. And that realness doubled down. Transforming the place seemed nearly impossible, especially considering the timeline I’d set for myself, but even so, excitement thrummed. It was happening. Finally.
I spent the rest of the afternoon pushing boxes to the center of the smaller rooms that ran around the perimeter of the main floor. The more I worked, the more manageable it seemed. I already knew my favorite space. The corner room in the back left side of the shop. It was the one with the largest river rock fireplace. My uncles’ store had a Victorian sofa and antique standing lamp with an ornate fabric shade I’d been eyeing. Those would go there, and it would be my mystery-themed room. Each little nook would have its own genre. The largest offshoot would be the children’s book area, and while I was going to make every inch of the store as spectacular as I could, the mystery room was going to be just a touch more special.
By the same time next year, I’d have the entire shop decked out for Christmas. As it was, I used some of my illusive time to cut out paper snowflakes and tape them to the windows looking out on the tourists passing by. Next year, lights, trees, and maybe I could even brew some spiced cider for customers. But, for now, wonky snowflakes would have to do for holiday cheer.
“If you keep glaring at me like that, I’m going to leave you home tomorrow.” I glowered at Watson, who peered up at me as I taped the final snowflake on the glass. His corgi eyes doubtlessly did a better job of glowering than mine. “It’s not like you’d be unsafe. With the fortune I just paid for your dog run, the abominable snowman himself couldn’t break in.”
The threat to leave him home was an empty one, and we both knew it. Even with the Fort Knox of dog enclosures, I’d worry about him the entire day and get absolutely nothing done. Never mind the fact that since he’d waddled into my life a little more than a year ago, we’d been inseparable.
Watson’s intense look was interrupted by a sneeze, a second one, and then he went right back to glaring.
“You know, buddy, the Cozy Corgi bookstore is named after you. We’re going to have to work on your disposition before we have living, breathing customers.”
I was fairly certain his brown gaze darkened. Watson was persnickety about which strangers he would allow to fawn over him.
A few seconds longer of our staring battle and I admitted defeat. We had both known I would. The only way I could change his disposition in the moment was to offer him a treat. And I’d already given him five since coming to the store a few hours ago. Since moving to Estes Park, Watson had steadily required more treats, and he was just a bit “fluffier” than was healthy. Not that I had much room to judge. My newest friend, Katie, was a baker, and I felt fairly certain she was intent on me buying an entire new wardrobe, with all the fresh carby goodness she continually shoved my way.
“Fine. You win. But this bookstore isn’t going to put itself together, you know.” I strode to the counter, slipped into my jacket, and grabbed my purse and an incorrectly delivered letter. It seemed I got someone else’s mail every other day. I wondered how much of my own ended up somewhere other than with me. At least all the books had come to the right place.
I couldn’t blame Watson. The smell of stain, varnish, and all the other chemicals used to refinish the wooden floors of the two-leveled shop a couple of weeks before had finally faded. We’d had an entire day and a half of getting the Cozy Corgi ready without runny noses and stinging eyes before the newly installed bookcases that filled nearly every room on the main floor had their turn at a beauty treatment. I was planning on opening the store in January, but that was only two weeks away. If I started stocking the books on the shelves too soon, I feared no one would buy them due to their absorbing the chemical smell.
After slipping on his leash, I stepped outside with Watson, paused long enough to lock the front door of the shop, and then began walking down the sidewalk. The two stores on either side of the Cozy Corgi had been candy shops, but now sat empty, waiting. While some of the stores had closed for the winter season, these were the only ones that felt desolate. I was certain it wouldn’t last for long.
“One more stop, and then it’s family dinner night.”
Watson turned his unimpressed gaze on me again.
“Barry, buddy. You get to see Barry.”
And with that, his eyes lit up and he gave a little hop. My stepfather was Watson’s favorite human in the world, outside of myself. And there were times I wasn’t entirely certain I outranked Barry.
Though it was barely four thirty in the afternoon, the sky was dark and only a small pink glow remained over the rim of the mountains. Snow fell in thick soft flakes, and while it was cold, there was no wind, so it was a crisp pleasant sensation. The weather mixed with the garlands, light-festooned streetlamps, and the ropes of glowing tinsel across the street made me marvel at my new life.
When we first moved to Estes Park from Kansas City the month before, I’d felt like we’d landed inside a snow globe. Now, with the holiday barely a week away, I was convinced we lived in a Christmas village. The sensation was compounded by the endless rows of shops on Elkhorn Avenue, all of which were either vintage fifties and sixties mountain style or those, like mine, that looked like small log cabins.
Within five minutes, we walked close to the end of the next block, and I checked the address on the envelope. The return address showed that it was from a Denver law office. There was no business name, but the numbers matched those under the silver script that read Rocky Mountain Imprints on the glass door.
A bell chimed as we walked in, and Watson let out an irritated snuff seconds before the smell hit—not overly unpleasant, and less harsh than what my own shop currently smelled like, but it was a weird mix of heat, plastic, and something I didn’t have a name for. Endless racks of T-shirts and hoodies filled the store, and every inch of wall space was papered in square designs, ranging from cute forest animals, to Smokey Bear, to borderline risqué logos about hiking naked.
“Welcome, and Merry Christmas!” A cute blonde woman waved at me from behind the counter.
I nearly jumped at the sudden sound of her voice. I hadn’t noticed her amid all the cacophony of fabric colors and images. Not to mention she was nearly pixie small.
“Thank you! And Merry Christmas to you.” I motioned down at Watson. “I hope you don’t mind that my dog is with me.” Estes Park was extremely dog friendly, but Watson and I had encountered the rare shopkeeper who didn’t appreciate animals in their store. In their defense, Watson tended to leave a cloud of dog hair wherever he went, as evidenced by every article of clothing I owned.
“Of course not!” The woman’s bright voice was nearly as cheerful as a pixie. “He’s adorable. We actually sell T-shirts for dogs.” Her eyes narrowed as she inspected Watson. “He’s… a basset hound, right? I don’t think we have any of those, but I do a lot of the art myself. I can custom-design something for you. Maybe a basset hound wearing reindeer ears or something for the season?”
I shook my head and managed to smile instead of grimace. “Thank you, but no. Watson would murder me in my sleep if I tried to put clothes on him. Once in a while, he’ll let me get away with a little scarf, but even then he gives me attitude for days after. And he’s a corgi.” A basset hound and a corgi both were long and short, but really couldn’t look more different, with basset hound ears nearly dragging the floor, and a corgi looking for all intents and purposes more like a chiseled fox.
“Well, if you change your mind, let me know. I’ll happily create something for a corky. I’ve never tried to do anything with scarves, but it could be a fun adventure.”
A corky? I was going to have to remember that one. Maybe that could be a new nickname when Watson was being a snot.
As we walked closer to the counter, the woman seemed to get smaller. Granted, that wasn’t an unusual sensation for me upon meeting petite women. I was a healthy five foot ten, which seemed like a good size to me, but anytime I was around women the stature of my mother, I grew the tiniest bit self-conscious. At thirty-eight, I’d expected to outgrow that particular insecurity. Maybe by the time I was forty….
“I am actually not here to shop. Sorry.” I held out the envelope. “This was delivered to my store by accident. It’s addressed to a Sarah M. Beeman, but it had your shop’s address.”
The blonde’s eyes narrowed as she took the envelope, and then she glanced toward the back of the store before flashing me another smile. “Thank you. I’ll see that she gets it.” She cocked her head. “Wait a second. You said it was delivered to your store? I don’t think I’ve met….” Her gaze left me once more, flicked to Watson, and then I saw understanding. “Ah! The Cozy Corky, the bookshop that’s coming. I saw your sign. It’s adorable.”
She might not know her dog breeds, but with that comment, she won my approval. I was particularly proud of the wooden sign above my door with a corgi sitting on a stack of books. I held out my hand. “That’s me. My name is Winifred Page, but everyone calls me Fred.”
“Fred! That’s almost as adorable as your shop sign.” She slipped her tiny hand into mine. “I am Peg Singer.” She tilted her head toward the back. “My husband, Joe, and I own the shop.” She broke our hands’ embrace and then gasped. “I have the best idea! That logo would be amazing on T-shirts and hoodies, we can even put them on hats. If you buy them in bulk, I’ll give you a discount, and then you can mark them up and sell them at your store.” She gestured behind her at a row of trophies. “Each summer we locals have a softball season. There were so many shop owners by the end of last year, we talked about splitting into two teams. You could lead the new one, and your little dog could be the mascot. Joe does really wonderful things with jersey imprints.”
I shook my head, a little more emphatically than I’d intend. “I’m so not a sports person. Any team I’d be on would be guaranteed to lose. And Watson is about as athletic as a beached whale.” I reminded myself I needed to get off to a good start with the other business owners, so I paused, considering. “The Cozy Corgi logo on shirts and stuff might be cute, though.”
“I promise you it would be.”
“Let me think about it, but….” I fished around in my purse for my newly printed business cards “Let me leave you my information and you can send me the details. Will that work?”
“Absolutely!” The card went the way of the letter. “I’ll send you some options and quotes in the next couple of days.”
I hadn’t figured out what I was going to do with the top level of my shop, it had been an apartment before—and the scene of a murder. I hadn’t wanted to extend the bookstore up there, preferring to keep it more of an intimate space, but maybe Cozy Corgi merchandise could be fun.
Watson pulled on his leash, obviously done with another smelly location. I followed his lead. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Peg. We should probably get going, though. My little guy is getting hungry.” I loved Watson for all that he was, even his often grumpy disposition. But one of my favorite parts of puppy motherhood was always having a ready excuse to leave.
“It was great to meet you as well, Fred.” She gave a finger-wiggling wave to Watson. “And you too, Walter.”
I truly did like the idea of the Cozy Corgi merchandise, but I made a mental note to double and then triple check spelling on any proofs she might send my way. The Cozy Corgi could easily end up being the Grumpy Goat or some such nonsense.
The snow had picked up, and as Watson and I stepped outside, the cold fresh mountain air was such a contrast to the plasticky smell of the T-shirt shop that I stood there for a second to luxuriate.
I turned back the way we’d come, and the store next to Rocky Mountain Imprints caught my eye. I wasn’t sure how I’d missed it to begin with. Toys filled the window, and like my shop, the outside was a log cabin façade. The arched wooden sign over the door read Bushy Evergreen’s Workshop. Unlike the T-shirt store, even from my spot on the sidewalk, it was easy to see the place was completely decked out for Christmas. I gave Watson an apologetic grimace. “One more stop before Barry. But this is the last one. I promise.”
Before he could sit down and refuse to move, I pushed open the door and ushered him inside.
Sure enough, the place was as charming as it seemed from the outside. I’d toured all the stores when we first moved, but I’d been so focused on all the drama, I hadn’t paid too much attention to aesthetics. Bushy Evergreen was an unfortunate name choice, but workshop was appropriate. It felt like Watson and I had stepped through a portal and landed in Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. The tiny place practically overflowed with toys. For a second I couldn’t figure out what was unusual about it, but then it hit me, only increasing the sensation of being in a place owned by Santa. Most of the toys—much like Estes Park itself—seemed to be from a time long ago. Tops, jack-in-the-boxes, wooden train sets and cars, and endless rows of stuffed animals. Many of the wooden toys and figurines looked expertly hand carved. In all the chaos of toys, three different Christmas trees were stuffed here and there, twinkling brightly. Garland was roped around every available surface, looping over the perimeter of the walls and outlining the shelves and tables.
“Wow.” I stood in awe and forgot that I was nearly forty. This place was Christmas morning—smells of hot chocolate and molasses, the feeling of rushing down the stairs to find brightly colored packages under a sparkling tree.
There was a warm chuckle from somewhere to the left. “Never get tired of seeing that expression on people’s faces. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed one on a dog before, but even your furry friend appears enchanted.”
I glanced at Watson. Sure enough, Watson’s gaze flicked from one thing to another and he seemed captivated by it all, rather than irritated at keeping Barry waiting. Talk about a Christmas miracle. Maybe we really had stumbled upon Santa’s workshop.
Catching myself, I looked toward the voice, and seemed to misplace my own. The man standing behind the counter was no elf. Nor was he Santa. He was a tall, rugged mountain of a man. Dark red hair and stunningly handsome. Where Peg had made me feel like a giant, this man made me feel like… well, probably how Peg had felt next to me, I assumed.
He flashed a bright white smile, somehow increasing his good looks, which shouldn’t have been possible. “You all right?”
I nodded and had to lick my lips so I wouldn’t drool, more than anything. I pointed to the garland strewn magically over the store. “Yes. I’ve just never seen garland that lights up before.” That much was true, the crystalline garland was a constant shifting rainbow of colors. It almost looked like it was made from shards of glass or snow, and somehow glowed in countless sparkling hues.
His thick brows creased. “Yeah, it was my idiot brother’s idea. Pretty spectacular stuff, unless you’re the one hanging it. I think I bled for a week.” Whatever irritation he felt vanished. “Looking for a gift?”
I shook my head. I was not looking for a gift. Although, since I was in a toyshop… “Yes, though I have no idea what to get. I have nieces and nephews. Two who are fourteen and two who are eight. Two boys, and two girls.” He had a small dimple in his chin. Not too deep as to be distracting, but just enough to highlight how chiseled his jaw truly was. “Well, they’re my stepnieces and stepnephews actually. I’m not very good at this whole aunt thing. My stepfather has two daughters; they’re twins.” His blue eyes might actually be made from sapphires. “And of course they married twin brothers, because Verona and Zelda weren’t identical enough, they had to marry twins. And they each have a fourteen-year-old and an eight-year-old, and I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to do for presents. Judging from the way they reacted the last few Christmases, I’m a horrible gift giver.”
Watson yanked at his leash, pulling my attention to him. He cocked one of his puppy brows at me and sat down.
He’d just earned himself another treat.
If I’d kept going, I probably would’ve told the man my entire family history. I turned back to him but focused on a carved bear over his shoulder. Maybe he was like an eclipse, you could function if you didn’t look directly at him.
“I can definitely help you out with the eight-year-olds, but I doubt we’ll have much to offer the teenagers. They seem to want nothing more than cell phones, iPads, and cash.” He gave another chuckle, proving that the sound of his voice was just as distracting as his appearance, no matter where I looked. “Depending on what they’re into, I just got a new shipment of….” His voice trailed off momentarily, causing me to look him full in the face again. “Wait a minute. I recognize you, and your dog. You’re—” He snapped his fingers a couple times. “—Fred Page, the one opening the bookshop where the old taxidermy place used to be. Where Opal was killed.”
For a moment I was beyond flattered that he had not only recognized me but recalled my name. Then I quickly realized chances were he’d been much more captivated by the murder and investigation that had swirled around me upon my arrival in town than he was about me personally. And that, more than keeping my focus away from him, helped me to quit acting like a complete fool. “That’s me. For better or worse. Watson and I are the ones opening the bookshop. You must be… Bushy?”
Even as I said it, I knew it couldn’t be. A man like that didn’t have the name Bushy.
He shook his head, and once more there was a flash of irritation like there’d been about the garland. “No. This was my father’s store originally. He still carves a lot of the toys, but it’s mine now. Bushy Evergreen was one of Santa’s original elves. He was a woodcarver and was in charge of the toyshop. My father felt a kinship with him. I would love nothing more than to put a sensible name on the place, but we’ve been here for over fifty years. Doesn’t make good business sense to change it now.” His charm was back. “My name is Declan, thankfully, not Bushy.”
Before I had the opportunity to somehow put my foot in my mouth again, there was a slamming of a door, and a voice rang out from somewhere in the back. “Declan, you’re never going to believe what I just found. I was just driving back from the grocery store and there was this old chest sitting beside a dumpster.” A man rushed through the doorway carrying a wooden box that looked like it had been kept at the bottom of the ocean for the past century. At a glance, I almost thought he was Declan’s twin, but it was a fleeting notion. He had the same height, coloring, and hair, but even though he had similar features to Declan, everything seemed off somehow—not malformed, just not as pleasing. Even so, he was very clearly related to Declan. “I was thinking I can clean it up, and Dad could—” His words fell away as he noticed me, and halted. “Oh, sorry. Didn’t mean to be so loud. Didn’t realize we had customers.”
Two other figures emerged from the back. I wasn’t sure if they’d been there the entire time or if they’d arrived with the strange Declan look-alike. An ancient-looking man with snowy hair, who was clearly Declan’s father, and a raven-haired woman, who was just as beautiful as Declan. Both of them halted as well.
“Yes, imagine that. A toy store having an actual customer at Christmastime. Shocking.” The coldness and shift in Declan’s voice drew my attention away from the other three people. His handsome features were suddenly hard. But a heartbeat later, he was charming again, his voice warm and pleasant. “Might as well make introductions while we’re all here. This is Fred Page, the one who’s opening the new bookshop.” He gestured from me toward the three individuals. “This is my father, Duncan, my brother, Dolan, and my wife, Daphne.”
“That’s a lot of Ds.” I wasn’t sure if it was the residual effect of Declan’s stunning appearance or his abrupt shift from warm and inviting to cold and harsh, but whatever it was, I chose to say that instead of hello, nice to meet you.
Dolan gave a maniacal laugh, the father’s brows knitted in an expression which reminded me of Watson in his grumpy moments, and Daphne smiled as she spoke. “That’s true. I’ve often wondered if Declan married me simply because of my name. My mother-in-law’s name was Della, believe it or not.” She shrugged and patted her flat stomach. “We won’t know if it’s a boy or a girl until the little one arrives, but I can guarantee you the name will start with D.”
Dolan let out another wild laugh. It wasn’t exactly off-putting, but a little crazed or something. Actually there was something off entirely. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I only knew that the Christmassy cheer of Santa’s workshop had morphed into something else. And probably sensing it himself, Watson once again pulled on his leash, this time making it very clear he wanted to go.
“Well….” I attempted to force an easy-breezy tone, but was fairly certain I failed. “It’s lovely to meet all of you.” I refocused on Declan, this time not mesmerized by his appearance. “I’m running late for dinner with my family. Mom’s making a big spread. I’ll drop in before Christmas and find something good for the eight-year-olds.”
And once more, Declan was all handsome charm and pleasant voice. “Please do. I’m sure we’ll find something perfect for them. It was a pleasure to meet you, Fred. We’ll look forward to visiting your store when you open.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that.” I gave a wave that hopefully encompassed everyone. “We’d best get going. Merry Christmas.”
Dolan and Daphne responded as I turned and hurried out the door. I paused in the cool air once more, but this time it wasn’t refreshing. Just cold. I glanced down at Watson.
“What in the world was that?”
He didn’t bother to respond, only took off down the sidewalk, pulling me with him.
Before I’d taken two steps, loud voices reached my ears, and I glanced through the window, past the toys, to see Declan shaking his fist as he yelled at Daphne. Dolan jumped between them, shouting something as well, though I couldn’t make it out.
Duncan’s old eyes met mine through the window and clearly told me to mind my own business.
I hesitated despite his stare, wondering what I should do.
With another tug on his leash, Watson made the decision for me.