BUYER, BEWARE

Style in a Small Town Mystery #2
Paperback ISBN: 9781969197106
eBook ISBN: 9781939197023

She needs a paycheck. A murder creates the perfect job. Can she avoid becoming the next victim?

Samantha Kidd recently added an unexpected skill to her fashion-heavy resume: solving a crime. But amateur sleuthing doesn’t pay the bills. A new retailer shows interest in hiring her as their handbag buyer, but there’s one big red flag: the last buyer was killed on the job.

Moving back to her old hometown was about leaving that career path behind, but Samantha’s out of options. When another person at the store is murdered, the walls close in like a snug, satin lining.

Can Samantha get a handle on an inside job without getting caught in the killer’s clutches?

Buyer, Beware is the second cozy mystery in the humorous Style in a Small Town mystery series. If you like friendship fiction, fashionable drama, and mysteries that keep you guessing, you’ll love Diane Vallere’s humorous mystery.

Buy Buyer, Beware for laugh-out-loud entertainment today!

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Excerpt:

1: Not a Thief

This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my Saturday night. It was one thing to be home alone waiting for the phone to ring. The man I wanted to call was in Italy, and I’d gotten used to Saturday nights by myself. Maybe that’s why I was hiding in a bathroom with a naked man. He quickened my pulse, shortened my breathing, and inspired thoughts that would make a more innocent woman blush. Never mind that he was made of wood and tucked inside my handbag. Never mind that five minutes ago I’d stolen him from his place of honor in the admissions hall of the local design school.

 I’m not a thief, my inner monologue cried out. I’m not a crook, or an opportunist, or the kind of person who breaks the law.

Well, maybe, on occasion, I was the kind of person who broke the law, but only in very specific situations of the life-or-death variety.

I bargained with the patron saints of thieves and fashion: If I make it out of here safely, I promise to never wear sweatpants in public again.

 From the hallway, I heard the resonant strike of leather soles on the marble floor. I promised myself if I could make it fifteen more seconds without breathing, I could have two bowls of cherry vanilla ice cream when I got home. If I got home. If I didn’t get caught.

Not the best strategy for not breathing.

The footsteps faded, and I exhaled. The naked statue shifted lower in my handbag. I relaxed for a moment and rooted around, making sure my wooden companion was hidden inside the slightly worn Birkin handbag I bought on eBay back when I had a disposable income. At least if I was hauled off to jail, it would be locked up with the rest of my outfit, patiently awaiting my release. How long do you get for stealing art? Ten to twenty years? Good thing the Birkin was a classic.

The door to the bathroom creaked open. Before I could scream, climb through a vent, or adopt a really cool fighting pose, a man in a black turtleneck, black knit hat, black gloves, black cargo pants, and black Vans grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward the exit. It was Eddie Adams, my closest friend and occasional bad influence.

“Did you make the swap?” Eddie whispered.

I nodded.

“Good. The security guard is on the other side of the building. We have to go. Now!” He shoved me into the bright hallway. We raced past closed classroom doors and bulletin boards filled with colorful slips of paper that announced campus activities and tutor sessions. We burst out the exit, down the concrete stairs, to the parking lot. I dove into the back of the waiting getaway car, otherwise known as our other friend Cat’s Suburban, and pulled an open sleeping bag over my body. Eddie disappeared into the night on foot. I snuggled against the backseat and remained curled in the fetal position around my Birkin while Cat drove to the edge of the lot.

The car stopped. Why did the car stop? There was no way we were out of the parking lot. It was too soon to stop.

“Can you tell me how to get back to the highway?” Cat asked in an innocent tone. I pictured her flipping her red hair over her shoulder and tipping her head to the side. A male voice described a series of exits and turns. She thanked him. A set of tires peeled out of the lot past us, the voices ceased, and off we drove, me clinging to the naked man like it was our third date.

And that describes my first premeditated robbery.

The night was a success, if success can be measured by things like theft and clean getaways. We’d done it. We’d pooled our collective resources and talents and swiped a statue from the Institute of Fashion, Art, and Design, or I-FAD, as it was known in fashion circles. My careful planning had taken us from concept to execution, but success was a team effort. Eddie, visual manager for Tradava, Ribbon, Pennsylvania’s oldest retailer, Cat, owner of Catnip, a discount designer boutique in the outlet center, and Dante, Cat’s brother, had made it happen. Even more impressive than the success of our mission was the fact that I’d planned the whole thing less than a week ago.

 

Things had been quiet around my hometown of Ribbon, Pennsylvania. Life was normal, or as normal as it can be when you’re in your early thirties, out of work, trying to figure out how to pay the bills. Six months ago, I’d given up my glamorous job as the senior buyer of ladies’ designer shoes at Bentley’s New York for a chance to move into the house where I grew up. Things hadn’t turned out exactly as planned thanks to a murder investigation. I lost my job and my mentor and came darn near close to losing the house. I’d taken to obsessively reorganizing my wardrobe, first by color, next by silhouette, and finally by decade. With my savings account rapidly dwindling thanks to things like the new mortgage payment and cat food for Logan, I was a starving fashionista living off the contents of my closet.

And then the contest had been announced in the Ribbon Times.

Interested in a Heist?

Ribbon’s hottest new store opens on July 14. Join us for the Pilferer’s Ball to get a sneak preview of our unparalleled assortments at criminally low prices. Daring attendees are challenged to arrive with one of the following items in tow, “borrowed” from their current place of residency. Should you successfully lift said loot without notice, you can win a $10,000 shopping spree at HEIST. Rules and regulations listed below.

It was right up my alley.

Eddie, a high school friend I’d reconnected with during the aforementioned murder investigation, seemed the perfect person to help. Plus, safety in numbers and all that.

“The best time for the theft is in the early morning, like three or four o’clock. It’ll be dark, the night guard will be tired, and there will be minimal traffic on the campus since the bars and parties shut down at two. Anyone wandering around will probably be drunk and not a credible witness,” I had said to Eddie, while we hung out in my living room, discussing my plan.

When I first moved in, the house was a study in post-college hand-me-down. I’d painted an accent wall with a gallon of aqua paint from Home Depot’s “Oops” rack and decorated the wall with fabric cuttings framed in black plastic document frames from the dollar store. Three rows of nine frames each filled the wall opposite the large bay window. A white afghan, crocheted by my grandmother, covered the back of the gray flannel sofa Eddie bought me from a prop sale at Tradava, the store where he currently worked (and I thought I’d be working—but that’s a different story for a different time). Two black and white chairs sat opposite the sofa, set off by blue tweed fabric I’d found in the markdown bin at the local fabric store and fashioned into curtains.

“We need to not look suspicious around the campus, because people might remember us if we seem like we don’t belong,” I added. “I think you should pretend to be a security guard. That way the real guard won’t spend too much time watching the areas where you already are.”

Eddie sat sideways in one of the black and white chairs, his knees bent over the arm, his checkered Vans bouncing on the outside of the fabric. His pencil flew over a pad of drawing paper, making sketches.

“I don’t think I’ll make a very convincing security guard.”

I ignored him. “My new neighbor is the head of the fabric curriculum at I-FAD. I’ll volunteer to talk to one of her classes or something.”

I was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Hold that thought,” Eddie said. He spun to a sitting position and pushed himself out of the chair.

“You invited someone to my house?” I asked, shoving incriminating plans and schematics under the sofa. I followed him to the door.

Standing on my porch were a man and a woman. I recognized the woman as Catherine Lestes, the Catnip boutique owner. The last time we’d spoken, we shared a couple of not very nice words. (She’d accused me of murder, and I don’t take well to that.) Next to her was a stranger, attractive in a bad-boy way. His outfit could have been assembled from the greats: black leather jacket from Brando, white T-shirt from James Dean, faded denim jeans from Paul Newman. His jet-black hair and sideburns looked like Elvis’s in the 1968 comeback special. His scuffed and worn black leather boots probably protected his feet from snakes while walking through the jungle. Out of Africa, maybe. Redford. I looked back at his face. Dangerous and brooding. Not Redford.

“Are you Samantha Kidd?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you.” He held out a hand. His black leather sleeve rode up, exposing flame tattoos around his wrists. “I’m Dante. You know my sister, Cat.” He tipped his head to the side.

Not sure of the protocol to welcome a formerly hostile fashionista and a strange biker dude on my doorstep, I looked at Eddie. He stepped to the side and held the door open.

“Glad you guys could make it. Come on in,” he said.

Not what I’d expected. I glared at him, communicating thoughts that he appeared able to tune out.

“I get the feeling you didn’t know we were coming,” Dante said to me.

“Eddie invited me. We’re here to help with the theft,” Cat added. “I invited Dante to join us. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Sure, fine, no problem.” I turned to Eddie. “Can I see you in the kitchen for a moment?”

Logan, my frisky black feline, slinked into the room. I turned to Cat and Dante. “Watch out for my cat. He’s very selective about the company he keeps,” I said. Logan crossed the room and sniffed the toes of Dante’s boots. Fickle cat.

In the kitchen, Eddie said, “Before you say no, think about it. We can’t pull this thing off by ourselves.”

“Cat doesn’t like me.”

He waved my protest away like the scent of stinky cheese. “She didn’t like you when she thought you were a murderer. Things change. Let them stick around and listen what they can do. Cat has connections at I-FAD, so she can be our person on the inside. And she tells me her brother has all kinds of hidden talents.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, sneaky stuff, by the looks of him. But listen, we might need another man besides me.”

The problem was, I already had another man besides Eddie: Nick Taylor. Only, I didn’t.

In terms of style, Nick was Redford. And Clark Gable and Cary Grant. He was Hamptons preppy with a side of early Duran Duran. Nick was a shoe designer I’d worked with in my former (glamorous, financially successful, emotionally draining) life. When I gave up that job for a lifestyle makeover and moved from the Big Apple to the small town—Ribbon, Pennsylvania—Nick’s name moved from the “colleague” column of my life to the one labeled “you’ve got potential.” And then, like all good shoe designers, he left for Italy, where he’d been for the past month. I was pretty sure that, in addition to keeping the secret about our planned theft at the museum, keeping the secret of the hot tattooed biker who had all kinds of hidden talents might be a bit of a challenge.

“Fine,” I said, though it was anything but.

We returned to the living room. Logan was curled up next to Dante on the gray flannel sofa. Cat sat on one of the black and white chairs, flipping through the Halston coffee table book I kept on my glass and chrome coffee table. Her legs were crossed, and she bounced one patent leather lime green pump against her calf.

 

I sat next to Dante and retrieved the plans and schematics from under the sofa. I outlined my general plan to get them caught up.

“I’ll come up with assignments for both of you tonight. In the meantime—”

“Dante will make a better fake security guard than I will,” Eddie said. He pulled a piece of paper from his manila folder and held it out to Dante. “Plus, that will give me more time to work on the fake.”

Cat chimed in next. “I’ll set up a guest professorship with the college, Samantha. I’ve done it before and already have the contacts. The college probably won’t respond to your offer to guest lecture since you’re currently unemployed.” She brushed a stray lock of vibrant red hair behind her ear. “Now we just need something for you to do.” She leaned forward, her elbows on her olive pants, her fingertips tapping against each other while she thought.

“I got it!” Eddie said, spinning to the front of the chair and leaning forward. “You can go undercover as a student.”

We all turned toward him. Expensive moisturizers and a box of Miss Clairol could only do so much, and I think the ship had sailed on “undercover student” ten years ago.

“Undercover grad student,” he clarified. “What?” he said, addressing the doubtful expressions in the room (which numbered more than just mine). “Get her into a sweatshirt and jeans, and she’d look like half the students on campus.” He looked at me and cocked his head to one side. “A tan, less eyeliner, no lipstick, some highlights …”

“We get the point,” I said.

“To make sure I’m up to speed,” Dante said, “Eddie’s going to make a fake sculpture. Cat’s going to get inside the college and look around. I’m going to pose as a security guard. And Samantha’s going back to school.”

Everyone nodded but me.

“Eddie, how long will it take you to make the replica?” Cat asked.

“Not sure. I need measurements, pictures, specs. I need to conduct recon.”

Dante pulled a folder of his own from inside his motorcycle jacket and tossed it on the coffee table in front of Eddie. Cat leaned forward, and Eddie opened the folder. I watched out of the corner of my eye. Eddie fanned a series of photos across the table. They featured every conceivable angle of the statue, along with newspaper clippings describing the material, installation, security, and measurements.

“Is that what you need?” Dante asked.

Eddie’s eyes went wide. “Where’d you—”

“You guys aren’t the only ones who read the newspaper. Just seemed easier to be part of your team than try to steal it on my own. How long?”

“With this info? I’ll review it tonight and work on materials tomorrow. I’ll take a couple of days off and can have it ready by the weekend.”

“Good. We all know our assignments?” Dante asked.

The heads around the table bobbed. I pushed my chair away from the table and walked into the kitchen. Dante followed. I pulled a Fred Flintstone juice glass from the cabinet and filled it with tap water, pretending I didn’t know he was there.

“You don’t like that we changed your plan,” he said.

“Doesn’t really matter. It’s not my plan anymore.”

“Sure it is. The players may have changed, but the game is still the same. Just because people swapped parts doesn’t mean you didn’t design it. Besides, it’s best everyone take the role they’re most comfortable in.”

I turned around and faced him. “You really wanted to try to steal the statue on your own?” I asked, leaning against the counter.

“The thought occurred to me. I like a challenge.”

“How do I know we can trust you?” I asked, swirling the water around in the glass. “I know nothing about you.”

“You can keep me under surveillance if you’d like.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve got nothing to hide. Spend the next couple of days with me.”

Heat climbed my face. “I—I can’t,” I said, cursing my shaky voice. “I have to stay on task,” I added.

He shrugged. “I have to split. If Cat wants to stick around, tell her to call me when she’s ready for a ride.” He took my hand in his and flipped it so it was palm-side up. He picked up a pen from the counter and wrote a series of numbers across the fleshy part. “That’s my number.”

“You’re her brother. I think she knows the number.”

He capped the pen and set it on the counter. “I know she knows the number. That’s for you.”

He walked to the front door, calling good-byes to Cat and Eddie, who were flipping through the Halston book. As much as I wanted to dive in and show them the outfit on page 157, I followed Dante because it was the hospitable thing to do.

“You sure you can keep them focused?” he said. “Because this won’t work unless everyone stays on task.”

“I’ll do my best.”

He reached down, tipped my chin back, and stared at me for an uncomfortable couple of seconds. “This turned out to be a pretty good night,” he said. He turned and left.

 

Turned out, Eddie was right. Rarely do professionals move as quickly as beauticians who hear the phrase, “I need to look younger,” and the professionals I’d chosen from the back of the yellow pages were no exception. My brown hair had been highlighted and layered into a tumble of curls that hadn’t been allowed this kind of freedom in a decade. My blue-green eyes stood out against sun-kissed skin, the result of a week’s worth of spray-on tanning and bronzer to achieve a post-spring break glow. I traded foundation for tinted moisturizer and lipstick for lip-gloss and fought my eyeliner habit. Cat bought me an I-FAD sweatshirt, laundered and dried a dozen times to give it a lived-in look. I drew the line at matching sweatpants, pairing the sweatshirt with a kicky pleated plaid skirt.

It was uncanny to look in the mirror and see a face that only slightly resembled my own. It was even uncannier to spend the next week wandering the college campus. Surprisingly, that’s all it took. One week of surveillance to figure out what we needed to know to pull off our plan. The uncanniest part of all of it was that it worked.

After the theft, our hodge-podge team regrouped at my house for a celebratory drink. It was close to two in the morning, but we were hyped up by the fact that we’d gotten away with (sanctioned) thievery. Dante popped a bottle of champagne, and we toasted our success. At least, Cat, Dante, and I toasted our success. Eddie was upstairs getting the shoe polish off his face.

I pulled the bundle out of my handbag and unwrapped it. A wooden Puccetti statue on permanent loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to I-FAD. It was one of the few known works by Milo Puccetti, a student of Brancusi. It had resided on the college campus for the past five years, and we’d managed to swipe it, all because of a contest in the newspaper.

“Who’s going to be in charge of Woody until the party?” Dante asked.

“Woody?” I asked.

Dante pointed toward the Puccetti. “Woody.”

Cat rolled her eyes. “You can’t call him ‘Woody.’”

“We can’t call him Puccetti,” Dante countered. “What do you suggest?”

“Allen. Get it? Woody Allen.” Cat said.

“What about Steve?” I asked.

“Steve?” they answered/questioned in unison.

“Woody Allen—Steve Allen. Steve.”

“We’re naming him? Can I get in on this?” Eddie asked, towel-drying the side of his bleached blond hair.

“We went from Woody to Woody Allen to Steve Allen. Where do you want to go? Tag, you’re it. You pick the final name.”

Eddie repeated after me. “Woody… Woody Allen… Steve Allen…” He dropped the towel and shot two fists in the air. “Steve McQueen!”

I dipped two fingers into my champagne glass and dabbed the base of the statue. “I hereby dub thee McQueen.”

We stared at all twenty-four inches of him. It was the figure of a well-sculpted man, and I knew size didn’t matter, but his twenty-four inches were impressive. Now we just had to get him to Heist and present him to the judging committee. That was the last detail on our agenda, and it would happen tomorrow night at the Pilferer’s Ball, the store’s opening party.

Cat yawned. “Time for me to get home and go to bed. Dante, you want a ride?”

Dante looked at me. I was still wearing my college-girl outfit, and even though the outfit included a bulky oversized sweatshirt, it felt a little like he was seeing me in my underwear.

“Yes, Dante wants a ride,” I said.

Eddie was back to his usual shade of surfer-dude. He tossed the damp towel on the end of the sofa. “You guys are leaving already? The party is just getting started.”

With sound effects. Because that’s when we heard the sirens.

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