Book four

Cider orange chaos

In the charming town of Darlington Hills, trouble brews alongside steaming cups of pumpkin spice latte.

Interior designer Hadley Sutton finds herself caught in the middle of a feud between her favorite hangout, Whisks and Whiskers Cat Cafe, and its fierce new competitor, the Tea-Bone Dog Cafe. The claws are out in an epic rivalry of cats versus dogs and coffee versus tea.

When the dog cafe’s owner is murdered and Hadley’s cousin is identified as a possible suspect, Hadley dives headfirst into a trail of clues that point to a ruthless killer determined to keep their identity hidden.

Hadley must balance solving the crime, spying on Whisks and Whiskers’ sneaky new competitor, nurturing a blossoming romance, and dealing with a bizarre request from Detective Dennis Appley that she never saw coming. A complex web of romance and suspense unfolds, adding a spicy twist to her already thrilling adventure.

In Cider Orange Chaos, Hadley will need all her wit, charm, and determination to unearth the truth. Can she unravel the mystery before the killer makes her their next target?

Join Hadley as she brews up a storm in a cozy mystery that will keep you guessing until the last drop.

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Book excerpt

Chapter One

Stepping inside the Whisks and Whiskers Cat Café, I was greeted by the rich smell of coffee, curious glances from a nearby pair of calico kittens, and a very worried-looking Dennis Appley, who was jogging toward me.

“Mornin’, Hadley.” He spoke quickly, looking around as he approached. His ripped blue jeans and casual sweater told me he was off-duty today, and his sandy-blonde hair was disheveled as usual, giving off an air of cool indifference.

“What’s up?” I called out, raising my voice so he would hear me over the lively chatter surrounding us. 

Giving him a quick hug, I claimed a spot at the back of the long line behind the coffee bar. Saturday mornings were always busy, but today it was even more packed. I guessed it had something to do with the café’s Halloween specials: half-price pumpkin spice lattes and a free sugar cookie with any purchase.

“I’m hoping you can do me a favor.”

“Sure,” I sang. “What’ll it be? A free cup of coffee? A slice of pie? Being friends with the owner had its perks, and in your case, so does being friends with the friend of the owner.”

“I need you to pretend to be my girlfriend.”

I laughed so loud that one of the calico kittens bolted up a carpeted play structure and hid inside the hut at the top. “Thanks for the laugh. You had me going there for a second. I actually thought you…” I trailed off as I studied his face.

Oh. He was serious. There was no smile twitching on his lips, no glints of humor in his eyes. Not even the slightest dimple in his dimply cheeks.

“Uh…” I ran out of words.

“Detective Sanders caught Akari and me having breakfast together just now. He’s growing suspicious of us.” Dennis pointed discreetly to a table by the window where Akari Suzuki, his super-secret girlfriend and fellow police officer, was talking with Detective Roy Sanders and my Aunt Deb, who were also in a relationship.

I moved up a spot in the line, then shed my jean jacket and draped it over my arm. The café was warm compared to the crisp autumn air outside. “There’s nothing suspicious about having breakfast with a coworker. I eat with mine all the time.”

He grunted. “She was feeding me a bite of her quiche.”

“Hmm. That’s not something I do with coworkers.”

“Exactly. And if Detective Sanders or the police chief find out I’m dating another officer, I could lose my job. Rumors about Akari and me are starting to spread.”

I rolled my eyes. “Rumors that are true. You can’t go around feeding each other quiche in public and not expect people to notice.”

“People like your aunt. She just asked me how long Akari and I have been dating and whether she would be invited to the wedding.”

I held back a laugh. “That sounds like something she would ask.” As much as I loved my aunt, I’d learned to keep all details of my love life hidden from her. “What did you tell her?”

“I panicked. I told her I’m not dating Akari; I’m dating you.”

My eyebrows shot up. “What? How? Why?”

“You walked in right after she asked. I saw you and it just fell out of my mouth.” He put an arm around me awkwardly and turned to wave to Aunt Deb and Detective Sanders. He swore under his breath. “Now they’re sitting at my table. Can’t they get their own?”

“I’m here to have breakfast with my aunt and Detective Sanders. They sat at your table because you told them we’re dating. They assumed I’d sit with you too.”

Dennis thought for a moment. “Makes sense. So you’ll go along with it?”

I shrugged off his arm and stepped back. “No.” 

Pushing past him, I stepped out of line and headed for the far side of the counter to place my order. Now was a good time to take advantage of my friends-of-the-café privileges. Not only was I friends with the owner, Erin, but I’d also recently agreed to help her refresh the cafe’s interior at a lower rate than I typically charged clients. She wanted to jazz up the place to outdo their new competitor next door, the Tea-Bone Dog Café.

Dennis caught up with me in two long strides. “Come on, Hadley. You owe me.”

My jaw fell. “For what?”

“For not arresting you this summer.”

“But I was innocent.”

He grimaced. “It didn’t seem like it at the time. You’re lucky I didn’t book you into the graybar hotel.”

“The what?”

“The slammer. The pokey. You know, jail.”

I ignored Dennis and waved to Timmy, the manager of Whisks and Whiskers. He handed off a tray of dirty dishes to a kitchen helper, then pulled a ghost-shaped sugar cookie from a glass jar and placed it on a napkin.

“Happy Halloween! Try a cookie?” He handed it to me before I could answer.

“Thanks, Timmy; you’re the best. Can I get a pumpkin spice latte as well, please?” I slid a hand into my bag to retrieve my wallet.

“You got it, but it’s on the house. I’ll have it ready in a few minutes. We’re slammed this morning.” He said it with a smile, clearly pleased to have so many customers in the café. 

Erin had put Timmy in charge while she and her new husband were on a cruise for their honeymoon. Timmy wanted Erin to come home to a heap of profits, which was harder than ever to achieve given their new competitor. But he was doing everything he could, and he’d even decorated the café with fake spider webs and orange and yellow string lights. There were jack-o-lanterns everywhere, some carved, some not. Everything was orange and black.

Dennis tapped me on the shoulder. “Could you—”


“But Akari and I—”

“No.” I spun to face him, my eyes level with his shoulders, which appeared broader than ever in his snug long-sleeve sweater. “I can’t pretend to date you when I’m actually dating Reid.”

“That guy? Still?”

Oh brother. From the moment Dennis and Reid crossed paths, Dennis had made it blatantly clear he wasn’t a fan of Reid. I’d never been on a date with Dennis, but I couldn’t deny there were some sparks between us before I started dating Reid. Dennis had even asked me to dinner a few times earlier in the year before he knew I was with Reid. Then Dennis met Akari this summer, and their relationship went from zero to smoochy-smoochy in record time. 

I nodded. “Yes, Reid is my boyfriend.”

“Then why didn’t your aunt seem surprised when I told her we’re dating?”

“She doesn’t know I’m still dating him. I’ve experienced enough of her merry matchmaking antics to know it’s best to keep quiet about my relationships.”

He looked relieved. “Then this could work! If she doesn’t know about Reid, then she’ll believe you’re dating me.”

“What about Akari?” I asked, exasperated. “I can’t imagine she wants to pretend I’m your girlfriend.”

“She told your aunt we’re a cute couple. Neither one of us want anything to jeopardize our relationship or jobs. Akari is new at the precinct, and I finally got the job I’ve wanted since forever ago.” 

“You shouldn’t have to hide your relationship,” I said, softening my tone. “Workplace romances happen all the time. “As long as it’s consensual and you’re not her boss, why should it matter?”

“Akari is a patrol officer, and now that I’m a first-tier detective, I rank higher than her. And that goes against the precinct’s fraternization policy. Sanders is scrutinizing everything I do, waiting for me to mess up so he can go back to working solo.”

After Dennis helped with several high-profile homicides this year, the chief had promoted him and made him partners with Detective Sanders. The small town of Darlington Hills unfortunately had enough serious crime to justify two detectives, and Dennis’ military police background and recent experience investigating the local crimes made him the ideal candidate. 

“Detective Sanders won’t rat you out,” I argued. “He’s a great guy. My aunt hasn’t been this happy in years.” He was the first man she dated since her husband—my uncle Bill—passed away five years ago on a fishing trip.

“Sure he’s great, unless you’re someone he thinks is trying to take over his job—i.e., me.”

Timmy hustled toward me, holding a red mug of steaming, frothy pumpkin spice latte. He was tall and lanky, with a long beard grown naturally without any trimming or taming. Though he usually wore a blue slouchy beanie hat, today he wore a green felt Robin Hood cap for Halloween.

“Here you go, hon,” he said. “I sprinkled a little extra pumpkin pie spice on top for you.”

Thanking him, I took the mug and savored the aroma before sipping it. The creamy sweetness of the latte mixed perfectly with the spice of the pumpkin. It was heaven in a mug.

Dennis tapped my shoulder. “No one will know. Cops aren’t the gossiping type.”

I took a long, deep breath to rein in my mounting irritation. He sure was being persistent. Most days, Dennis was easygoing, with a larger-than-life personality and dimpled smile that went along with it. 

But now, his sea-blue eyes were heavy with worry. It wasn’t often that anything interfered with his sense of humor, but I’d known him long enough to see it happen—like the time I landed at the top of his suspect list after a tragic homicide.

And like today. Even though he had a habit of bending the rules, this time he cared about the consequence of getting caught.

“I’m sorry, Dennis, but no. I’m already in a relationship. There’s nothing you can say or do that will make me change my mind.”

The sound of two heated voices echoed from behind the double doors leading to the kitchen. Timmy emerged in a rush, giving the doors an extra hard push on his way out. Close behind him was Corey Colman, the newest barista on Erin’s team. 

Corey stepped out of the kitchen carrying an air of smug satisfaction. Untying his apron, he tossed it on the counter, then gave another barista a two-fingered salute before leaving the café.

Dennis walked off, and I turned to Timmy. “What happened?”

“Of all mornings Corey decided to quit, he had to choose the busiest one. He got a call two minutes ago from the Tea-Bone Café, telling him he got the job he’d applied for. He’s heading there as we speak to start working.”

I winced. “I’m sorry.” There was a good chance the person who had called Corey was my cousin Michael, the Tea-Bone Café’s manager. After losing several jobs in the last year, Michael had moved from Chicago to Darlington Hills to live with Aunt Deb while he sorted through some things in his life. What “things” he was dealing with I didn’t know. He had wanted to work for Erin, but since she wasn’t hiring at the time, he snagged a job next door instead.

“It’s not your fault, even if there was a Sutton involved in the poaching of my employees. Corey said they offer better pay and benefits.”

“Benefits?” I asked. 

“Bubble tea benefits. Corey claims to be sick of coffee.”

“Ew.” I wrinkled my nose. I’d never tried the drink, per my policy of avoiding any beverage containing bloated gelatinous floaters. 

Groaning, Timmy motioned to the people still waiting to place their order. “Now the line is out the door and I’m down a barista.”

“Maybe you can give them their free ghost cookie while they wait,” I suggested.

“Brilliant.” Timmy turned to the other baristas darting around behind the bar. “Let’s get some fresh cookies to the folks in line.” Then to me, “Gotta go; thanks for the idea!”

“Good luck,” I called out, but he was already halfway across the bar, scooping up an armful of clean plates from the shelves above the counter. I turned to look at the growing line of customers, then jumped back when Dennis materialized in front of me. He held up a white paper bag, his fingertips pinching the top fold.

“Please?” he asked, his eyes transforming into those of a pitiful puppy begging for table scraps.

I tossed up my hands. “You think a muffin will change my mind? I already said—”

“Good thing I didn’t buy you a muffin.” He shook the bag teasingly, making its contents rattle. “These aren’t for you; they’re for Razzy. One bag of Fur-rocious Fish Niblets. They’re extra fishy, just the way she likes them.”

I lifted my chin. “Oh…well then…yes, that does change things.” I took the bag and pulled it close to my chest. Dennis really did know how to tug at my heartstrings: one fish niblet at a time. 

I sighed as guilt nipped at me. Dennis was a good man, and he shouldn’t be deprived of dating who he wanted because of some silly police policy. He cared for Akari and didn’t want to lose her.

And I had the opportunity to help them.

It wasn’t like Dennis and I would announce our relationship to the world. Only Detective Sanders, Aunt Deb, and a few cops would think we were dating.

“Maybe. But I’m going to run it by Reid first.”

He slumped with relief, his tight-knit brow loosening as he smiled gratefully. “Thank you. Akari and I really appreciate this. And I can tell you right now, Reid won’t care.”

I sighed. It wasn’t a conversation I looked forward to. I couldn’t imagine how it would play out since I’d never asked a boyfriend whether they minded if I pretended to date another man.

Turning toward the bar, I lifted my latte from the counter and frowned.

“Where did my cookie go?”

Dennis pointed to the counter. “It’s on the napkin. Right there in front of you.”

“All I see is crumbs.”

“That’s because it’s a ghost cookie. Invisible to the human eye.”

I slapped his arm playfully. “You ate it, didn’t you?”

He gave me a wide, toothy grin. “It’s a privilege of being your fake boyfriend.”

I held up a hand and headed for our table. “Nope. There are exactly zero privileges tied to this arrangement, which I haven’t completely agreed to yet. First I need to talk to—”

“Hadley!” Aunt Deb sprang from her seat and pulled Dennis and me into a spirited hug. “Why didn’t you tell me you two were dating? I knew it was only a matter of time before the sparks would fly. I still remember the first time I met Dennis. You were with me, and I saw the way you looked at him. It was—”

“—almost unbelievable,” I deadpanned. 

Detective Sanders eyed me. “Something on your mind, Hadley? You look a little out of sorts this morning.” 

Dennis tugged on my ponytail before he reclaimed his spot across from Akari. “She’s not happy with me because I just ate her cookie.”

“Oh, Hadley hon, don’t let something like a cookie come between you and Dennis,” Aunt Deb cautioned. “Men are hungry creatures. It’s something you have to learn to deal with.”

Dennis patted the empty chair next to him. I eased into it, nodding to Akari as I sat next to her boyfriend. A hint of a smile tugged at the edges of her lips, and her eyes were bright with amusement.

At least Dennis hadn’t lied when he said Akari would go along with the lie.

It was a small table, barely able to fit all our plates, coffees, and the large jack-o-lantern that sat in the middle, which was carved to look like a cat face. A candle burned inside it, filling our area with the smell of cinnamon and vanilla.

“So Hadley, tell me about how you and Dennis…” Aunt Deb trailed off as her gaze drifted to an all-black kitten on a nearby windowsill who was moving its paw from side to side in an apparent wave to the wide-eyed children outside. “They’re evolving before our very eyes,” she joked.

Detective Sanders chuckled. “Before we know it, cats will be the ones serving us coffee. Or we’ll be serving it to them.” Leaning on an elbow, he fixed his gaze on Dennis. “I’d also like to hear about how you and Hadley became an item.” His thick gray brows furrowed, deepening the hard lines on his forehead.

Dennis slid his eyes over to me. “Would you like to tell it? You’re such a good storyteller.”

“I like the way you tell it better,” I responded sweetly.

He cleared his throat. “Well. Hmm…where should I start? We’ve known each other since early last spring, but two weeks ago—”

Three dings sounded almost simultaneously, and Dennis, Akari, and Detective Sanders checked their phones. Each laughed quietly to themselves, then returned their phones to the table.

“What was it?” Aunt Deb asked. “Police business?”

Detective Sanders shook his head. “Hardly. Someone set off a stink bomb next door at the dog café, which sent the customers running. The chief might dispatch a patrol officer to ask some questions, but it’s nothing I need to get involved with. Especially on a Saturday.”

Aunt Deb pulled out her phone and tapped the screen. “Michael is working there this morning. I’ll ask him about it.”

Dennis turned to her. “Have you taken your dog next door? I heard they welcome pets on their back patio.”

Good move, Dennis, I thought. Distract them from asking more questions about our relationship.

“I have! Little Chip loves the dog park at Tea-Bone. He likes running around with the big dogs. I keep trying to convince Hadley to join me there, but she doesn’t want to be disloyal to this café.”

I nodded. “That’s right. I’m Team Whisks and Whiskers one-hundred percent. You won’t find me at that slobber joint. But you know who has started going? My boss, Vincent. He sent everyone home early yesterday because he left at three o’clock to adopt a dog he saw there during his lunch break. It was all he could talk about, and as soon as the lady from the rescue agency returned to the café, he high-tailed it out of there to go sign the paperwork.” 

In a complete rip-off of Whisks and Whiskers, the dogs at the Tea-Bone Café were available for adoption. The only difference between the two cafés was that the Tea-Bone Café allowed customers to bring their furry friends to their outdoor dog park to rekindle their canine friendships after adoption.

Erin had been infuriated when the new café opened its doors in early September. To her, it was a battle of cats versus dogs and coffee versus tea. 

Twenty minutes later, I took my last sip of pumpkin spice latte. I’d made it through the meal without another question about Dennis and me, and Akari kept the rest of her quiche to herself. Aunt Deb checked her phone periodically, but Michael never responded. Most likely, he was dealing with the fallout from the stink bomb.

Detective Sanders reclined in his chair and folded his hands on his stomach. “So Hadley, are you going to the annual Tri-County Police Gala in two weeks? I assume Dennis invited you.”

I whipped my head towards Dennis. “What gala?”

His eyes widened slightly, in what I could only guess was an attempt to ask me to play along. “It’s the gala I was planning to invite you to later today,” he said slowly. “I haven’t asked because I know you have that…thing in a couple of weeks and I didn’t think you’d be able to go anyway.”

“Yes! The thing…with my…coworkers. The Friday-night happy hour we’ve been planning all month.”

“Actually, the gala is on a Saturday,” Dennis muttered.

I glanced at the ceiling, pretending to think. “Come to think of it, my happy hour is on that Saturday as well. I’m so sorry I’ll have to miss your event.”

“Hadley.” Aunt Deb set her fork down slowly. “You’re going to a happy hour with work friends instead of the police gala with your boyfriend?”

“Yep,” I squeaked.

“The gala where we celebrate and applaud everything our brave police force does for our community? The gala where we get to dress up in formal attire, eat a five-course dinner, and dance after we’ve had our fair share of champagne?”

Akari covered her mouth with a hand, clearly struggling to stifle a laugh.

“Yes, but—” I started. 

Aunt Deb’s eyes turned hard. “The gala that raises funds for the families of police officers wounded or killed while on duty?”

“Oh, that gala,” I said. 

As long as I was pretending to date Dennis, there was no way I would get out of this event—especially with a lame excuse like a happy hour.

Detective Sanders fixed his eyes on Akari. “How about you? Are you bringing a plus-one to the event?”

She shook her head sheepishly. “No. I’ve only lived here a few months and haven’t had time to meet many people. So it’ll just be me.”

“Well that would be a shame,” Aunt Deb declared. “A pretty woman like you going by herself. Why don’t you bring Michael, my son? He would be more than happy to join you.”

“That’s a terrific idea,” Detective Sanders boomed. “Michael’s a great guy; you’ll get along well with him.”

Akari’s eyes flicked to Dennis. “I…suppose I could—”

Aunt Deb clasped her hands together. “Wonderful! Then it’s settled. Michael will go with Akari, Hadley with Dennis, and I, of course, will accompany Roy.”

I looked at Dennis, but his focus was no longer on the gala conversation. He was tracking the red flashing lights atop an ambulance careening through the town square.

* * *

Sirens wailing, the ambulance sped off toward the west side of town. Dennis checked his phone, then returned it facedown to the table. Timmy swung by our table to check on us, and Aunt Deb asked for a to-go box for her leftover pancakes.

Five minutes later, Timmy ran back to our table without the box. His eyes were wide, his face flushed. “Did you hear the news?”

We shook our heads.

“My buddy Zach, who works at the dog café, just texted. Told me Harvey died a few minutes ago.”

“Harvey Rafferty?” Aunt Deb exclaimed.

Timmy nodded. “Yes, the owner of the Tea-Bone Café.”

Aunt Deb covered her mouth. “The poor dear; he had such a promising future ahead of him with his adorable new café. And he was kind enough to give Michael a job—oh, poor Michael! He must be so upset.” She tapped her phone several times, then raised it to her ear.

“Any word on how he died?” Detective Sanders said.

Timmy shook his head. “I’ll ask.” His thumbs pounded his phone’s screen.

“Michael, call me when you get this,” Aunt Deb pleaded. “I just heard the news about Harvey.”

Timmy’s phone dinged. “It was an allergic reaction,” he read.

“How sad!” I cried, immediately regretting that I’d never given his café a chance. 

“What was he allergic to?” Dennis asked. “Any known allergies?”

Timmy called Zach and asked him these questions. He nodded as he listened, then turned to us. “Harvey was deathly allergic to mushrooms. Paramedics said that considering the way his mouth and throat swelled shut, he must have eaten one.”

“Wouldn’t he have known he had a mushroom allergy?” Akari asked. “Why would he eat one?”

Timmy spoke into his phone, then nodded as he listened to his friend’s response. “Zach heard there were a bunch of black specs in Harvey’s cup, and they weren’t tea leaves since the café filters those out.”

Detective Sanders nodded to Dennis. They stood. 

“Looks like we’ll have a busier day than expected,” Detective Sanders said. He walked to the other side of the table and apologized to Aunt Deb for leaving early. “I’ll call you later when I get a chance.”

Dennis looked at Detective Sanders, and then at me. “Yes, sorry I have to leave early. We’ll talk later.”

Detective Sanders placed a hand on Aunt Deb’s shoulder and planted a big fat kiss on her lips.

I stepped back from Dennis.

He stepped forward, leaned in, and gave me a swift kiss on my cheek. “Thanks for playing along,” he whispered. “Really. Thank you.”

Detective Sanders tossed some cash on the table for the tip and Dennis threw Akari a discreet smile.

“Bye, hon,” Sanders said to Aunt Deb.

Dennis looked at me. “Bye, hon…honey bun.” Laughter surging through his wide eyes, he spun on a heel and started for the door.

“Wait!” I called out. Then, whirling to face Timmy: “You said ‘they’ were on a walk this morning. Who was Harvey with?”

Dennis and Detective Sanders turned back towards us.

Timmy’s gaze crawled over to Aunt Deb. “He was with your son.”