Authors: Julie Carobini
Tags: #Mystery, #Romance, #Suspense, #Christmas, #holiday
The Christmas Thief
(A Cottage Grove Mystery)
Copyright © 2015 Julie Carobini
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published by Dolphin Gate Books
This story is a work of fiction. All characters and events are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from
Award-winning author Julie Carobini writes novels set by the sea
RT Book Reviews
says, "Carobini has a talent for creating characters that come alive." Julie lives in California with her family and loves all things coastal (except sharks). For a free novella and other news, sign up for her newsletter:
Cover Design: Angie Carobini and Rob Williams
Photo Credits: Almgren/Dreamstime.com
Other titles by Julie Carobini:
The Chocolate Series
To my dad and mom, Dan and Elaine Navarro, who love to couch sleuth
Wishful thinkers. Or tourists. Tasha wasn’t sure which, but she couldn’t allow the strangers to traipse across the vacant property next to hers for long. Didn’t they know they were trespassing?
She’d have to let them down easy, though. Didn’t want to appear as some crabby thirty-something single with a hermit streak. Especially so soon after celebrating Thanksgiving. Although, come to think of it ... Rog sometimes accused her of being too quiet, too mousy ... too introverted.
Tasha squeezed her eyes shut. She’d promised herself she’d never say her ex-fiancé’s name again, and she’d have to remind herself that thinking his name was off limits too.
Wolfy, her amiable mutt, whined beside her. She chose the pup because of his wildly curly fur coat, similar to the head of hair that she too had been “blessed” with. The rescue shelter promised her the dog was properly ferocious. “He’ll protect you from intruders, both animal and human,” they’d said. Right. This dog counted bunnies, squirrels—
—among his friends. The closest thing to protection he would ever provide her would be to save Tasha from weight gain by sneaking off with the dessert that she occasionally forgot to put away after dinner.
Wolfy whined again, but this time added a tug on his leash. Tasha slid a glance to see Mr. Cho, her friendly neighborhood garlic farmer, strolling toward them on the opposite side of the street with his poodle, Courtney, a prima donna if she’d ever seen one. Coming up behind Mr. Cho was a speed-walking couple she’d yet to meet, though they’d passed each other often. The man always smiled and waved adding a “hiya” when they moved past her, while the woman’s acknowledgment was more of a brief nod. It always seemed to her that the woman was on a mission while the man was just along for the ride.
There were no sidewalks near the homes in the remote seaside village of Cottage Grove, and Tasha was fine with that. A premium on water rights, not to mention the periodic building moratorium, kept high-financed builders away. The lack of formal pathways gave the quiet area a less well-traveled feel, like she was living in a bygone era where people walked more than drove, and during wintertime’s shorter days, where they stayed inside to read by the fire and turn in early.
Okay, maybe that did sound a little hermit-like. Still, Christmas was coming and even party animals enjoyed a nice fire during the holidays.
“Hello, Tasha,” Mr. Cho called out to her.
She sent him a wave and a “hi.”
Courtney the dog stared straight ahead, as if Tasha and Wolfy were invisible, and pranced along the street like a royal horse leading a procession. Wolfy stopped and whined when they passed by.
“Shh,” Tasha said. “She’ll break your heart and then there’ll be two of us tending to our wounds. We don’t want that now, do we?”
Low-toned voices interrupted her thoughts. Undecipherable words coming from the men on the empty lot swam in the breeze. Tasha stepped behind a leggy pine tree at the top of the canyon behind her property and watched the strangers for a moment longer. The tall one wearing the black cowboy hat had lifted one boot-shod foot onto a tree stump and unrolled a wide swath of blue paper to rest across his thigh. The younger one, a straggly boy with bed head, peered a look over the paper too.
Tasha let Wolfy off his leash. Maybe for once he would live up to the rep the rescue shelter had pinned on him. As predicted, when he realized his freedom, he raced to the men on the empty lot, his yappy bark adding to the mix of their voices. Wolfy reached the men and spun around, his tail dipping and diving like a stunt plane. He plunked himself on the dirt and rolled onto his back so the taller of the two men could bend down and give the animal a tummy rub.
You had one job, Wolfy, one job ...
The man stood as she approached, allowing the blueprints to slide onto the needle-strewn land. He wore faded Levi’s and a dark red-on-red plaid flannel. His face was tan and in need of a shave. “Good morning,” he said. “This your dog?”
She nodded, unsmiling.
The two males exchanged a look. The boy buried his hands into his pockets and backed up as if to say that the older one was in charge.
He stuck out his hand. “Marc Shepherd.” He gestured to the kid with bed head. “And this is Andy.”
“Can I help you two with something?” she asked.
“Well, I don’t know. Are you my neighbor?”
“Depends, I guess,” she said, tension rising in her lungs. “I don’t know where you live.”
Marc spread his arms out like an eagle’s wings. “Before long, I’ll be living right here. If all goes well, I’ll lay the foundation before Christmas. It’ll be a slow process after that, unless the weather cooperates, that is. If rains are sporadic enough, I just might have her up by spring.”
“Here? You’re building a house here?”
“But ... but that’s impossible. This land failed a perc test ... I was told it couldn’t be built on.” Her jaw tightened.
The men exchanged another look. Andy shrugged and looked away.
Marc nodded, his mouth grim. “Yes, it did a few years ago, when I first purchased the lot. But we were recently able to nail down the problem, and last month it passed without any hitches.” He paused. “You may have seen a county official truck out here recently?”
She had and it had unnerved her—though she hadn’t suspected the truck’s presence anything but routine.
“I saw it.”
“Yes, well, a surveyor was out too. Planted some orange flags around the edges of the property—”
“But somebody stole them!” Andy piped up.
Marc put a meaty hand on the teen’s shoulder, as if to calm him. “It’s true that sometime between midnight and six a.m., the flags disappeared.”
Andy flicked his head, tossing a stray bang off of his forehead. “You wouldn’t know anything about that now, would you?”
Tasha shrank back. “Excuse me? You think I would have something to do with ... with that?”
“Or maybe we have ourselves a Christmas thief!” Andy said.
Marc frowned at Andy. “Stop. Of course our neighbor ...” He glanced at her, a question in his eyes.
She returned his frown. “Tasha.”
He nodded. “Of course I don’t think Tasha had anything to do with that. Was a windy night and those flags could be down on the beach somewhere by now.”
Tasha released a harsh breath and looked away. She had owned her tiny fixer-upper cabin for about a month, the real estate agent promising tranquility and solitude. This wooded stretch of the coast wasn’t easy to navigate, so there weren’t too many homes here, save those few on the hill behind hers. Living here among the pines and redwoods gave Tasha the sense that she was encapsulated somewhere deep in the woods, when in reality, she was cradled between the lushness of evergreen vegetation on one side and the starkness of cliffs hanging over the sea on the other. After losing her fiancé—and her career—in one unapologetic swipe, she’d welcomed the remote location and its power to heal and restore.
Tasha met his eyes. That’s what you’re supposed to do with the enemy—look them in the eye and let them know you won’t back down.
Marc sidled up closer to Tasha while Andy sulked away. “I want to apologize for my partner’s assertion that you would’ve had anything to do with the missing flags,” Marc said, his voice low. “He’s ... well, he’s in a rough patch right now with a young lady, and I’m trying to help him through it. He didn’t mean anything by it.”
Tasha glanced over at the boy, his chin hanging low. Her heart prickled at the sight. Unfortunately, she knew all too well the face of heartbreak. She met Marc’s eyes. “That’s rough.”
He gave her a half smile. “Thank you.”
She flicked a glance away from his watching eyes. “The tree,” she said, changing the subject. She gestured at the soaring pine tree in the center of the property. She had already made it her morning routine to sit on her deck on the south side of her cabin and gaze at the graceful branches of the fragrant pine. “I hope you’re planning to incorporate it into your plans.”
Marc stroked his stubbly chin, glancing at her first, and then upward along the imposing trunk of the towering pine. He winced into the light-filled sky, and then once again returned his gaze to her. “She is a beauty—a Torrey pine,” he said. “But unfortunately, she’ll have to go.”
He might as well have slapped her, the sting of his words drawing blood.
Tasha kicked the door shut behind her. Surely she could fight this ... but how? She picked up her phone, scrolled through her contacts, and called the real estate agent for the first time since escrow had closed.
A receptionist answered.
“Harry White, please!”
“Mr. White is no longer employed at Mile Pines Realty. Can someone else help you?”
A knock at the door startled her. She hesitated.
The receptionist cut in, “Can I connect you with someone else?”
Tasha darted a look toward the door. “No. Th-thank you.” She hung up and answered the door, fully hoping to find Marc Shepherd on the other side, Stetson in hand, telling her he had changed his mind. Instead, a woman with an updo and an overladen basket stood on her stoop.
“Can I help you?”