DEATH BY AUCTION (Abby McCree Mystery Series Book 3)
by Alexis Morgan
May 26, 2020
Not only did Abby McCree inherit her aunt's house in Snowberry Creek, Washington, she inherited a handsome tenant and a whole lot of trouble . . .
It's hard to say no to Tripp Blackston. That's how Abby found herself on yet another committee, organizing a bachelors' auction to raise money for Tripp's veterans group. The former Special Forces soldier is mortified when Abby enlists him to be one of the prizes, but she has a covert plan to bid on him herself. Before she can, she's foiled by a sniper bid from a gorgeous stranger, who turns out to be Tripp's ex-wife, Valerie.
Still reeling from the shock that Tripp was married and wondering what his ex is suddenly doing in town, Abby goes looking to pay the auction's emcee, radio personality Bryce Cadigan. She finds him in the parking lot, dead in his car. Valerie appears to be the last one to have seen Bryce alive, so she's the cops' best bid for suspect. When she asks Tripp for help—and lodgings—it's Abby's turn to block by inviting Val to stay with her. But did she just open her home to a murderer?
"I'm pretty sure I hate you for making me do this."
Abby McCree prayed for patience and kept driving. "No, you don't."
Tripp Blackston, her tenant and usually her friend, didn't back off his stance on the upcoming event. The former Special Forces soldier took up far more than his fair share of the front seat as he sat there with his arms crossed over his chest and wearing a take-no-prisoners expression on his handsome face. "For the record, these days I don't appreciate being volunteered for missions without being asked first."
Okay, enough was enough. She couldn't believe he'd gone there. Rather than punch the man, which would've been childish, she tightened her grip on the steering wheel. "Um, I assume you do realize the reason I ended up organizing this fund-raiser for your veterans group in the first place was that someone volunteered me. Let's see now, who could that have been?"
Tapping her chin with her forefinger as if struggling to remember, she finally shot him a narrow-eyed look. "Oh, yeah, that would be you."
Before he could launch another salvo, Abby staged a preemptive strike of her own. "The original deal was that you and I were supposed to be co-chairs on the event, but somehow I ended up flying solo ninety percent of the time, maybe even ninety-five."
She paused long enough to make a left turn across what constituted heavy traffic in Snowberry Creek, which meant shooting between the only two oncoming cars on Main Street.
Driving into the parking lot on the other side of the road, Abby picked up the discussion where she'd left off. "I do realize that was because you'd gotten behind in your classes at the college and had to get caught up or risk falling behind a year in your studies. Of course, that was because you'd gotten yourself thrown into jail right when we were supposed to be brainstorming ideas together."
"I was protecting—"
"I know, I know. You were protecting your friend, but your decision to do that had consequences. One of them is that you're going to be strutting your stuff up there on that stage tonight for a good cause."
By that point, she'd run out of fresh ammunition in their ongoing battle over the bachelor/bachelorette auction she'd arranged to kick off the two-part fund-raising event for his veterans group. The close-knit organization had big plans, ones that could really help other veterans in the area. But to carry out those plans, their budget needed a huge boost.
Tripp had asked her to take on the project as a personal favor. Well, actually, he'd guilted her into doing it. Something about him having helped her deal with a dead body in her backyard a few months back. Fine, so she'd owed him big-time. The least he could do was let her honor the debt without giving her constant grief about it.
She pulled into a parking spot near the entrance of the hall they'd rented for the auction, as well as the dance that would follow in two weeks. After shutting off the engine, she made no move to get out of the car.
"Look, I'm sorry you hate this so much, but it was the best idea I came up with. The whole board liked the concept and approved it immediately."
Nothing but silence from the other side of the car.
"The good news is that two weeks from now, it will all be over."
Tripp wasn't the only one who couldn't wait to put all of this behind them. There was nothing but stubborn silence coming from her companion, so she gave up and reached to open her door. He could come inside the building and be helpful, or sit out in the car and mope. His choice. She refrained from pointing out sulking wasn't a good image for a soldier, even a retired one.
At least he got out of the car and even helped her carry in the last three baskets of goodies that had been donated by local businesses. She had volunteers lined up to sell chances on the baskets, which she hoped would help get the evening off to a great start. Some of the businesses had shown a lot of creativity when it came to putting their offerings together. In fact, she had her eye on a couple that she wouldn't mind taking back home with her.
Tripp followed her over to the row of tables arranged across the back of the hall, where the baskets were displayed. "You can set those two down there."
He did as she asked but continued to trail along in her wake, crowding her just a little. Finally, she set her own basket down and turned to face him.
"Did you have something else you wanted to say, Tripp? If so, spit it out. I've got work to do before the doors open."
He no longer looked angry. In fact, if she had to guess, Tripp looked . . . embarrassed? What was going on in that head of his? All of her irritation with him morphed into concern.
"Tripp, what's wrong?"
He glanced around the big room as if to make sure they were still alone before zeroing in his attention back on her. "Don't let her buy me, Abby. Bid whatever you have to and I'll pay you back. I promise."
"Don't let who buy you?"
"Jean." His broad shoulders slumped in defeat. "Don't get me wrong. She's a really nice lady, but taking her to the dance would be like dating my best friend's grandmother."
Abby bit back the urge to laugh. Clearly he didn't find anything about the situation funny. "What makes you think she's planning on bidding on you?"
"Let's just say she strongly hinted at the possibility and more than once."
Abby wasn't privy to all the details about the elderly woman's finances, but she'd always had the impression that Jean lived on a pretty limited income. If so, she certainly shouldn't blow a wad of cash on a one-time outing with Tripp, not even for a good cause.
On the other hand, judging by how often Jean showed up at Tripp's door with one of her infamous tuna casseroles, she definitely had a thing for the man. So did at least two other members of the quilting guild that Abby headed up. She'd somehow inherited the position on the guild board along with the house she now lived in when her aunt Sybil passed away. Tripp lived in the small mother-in-law house on the back of the property and attended classes at the local college. In return for a reduction in his rent, he did a lot of work on the yard and small repairs on both houses.
Jean, along with her best friends Glenda and Louise, loved to watch him work, especially on hot days when he took off his shirt.
Okay, maybe she did owe him a little something for putting him through this. That didn't mean she couldn't give him a little grief along the way. "I'm sorry, but you can't pay for a date with yourself, Tripp. That wouldn't be right. I'm sure it would be against the rules."
He took another step closer. "What rules, Abby? You set up this whole event. That means you can do things however you want."
True enough. Even though she hadn't said so, she'd planned all along to bid on him. It was too much fun watching him squirm to let him off the hook too easily.
"Regardless, I can't stop her from bidding."
And they both knew it would hurt her feelings if they tried.
"Look, forget I asked. I'm just not into this kind of thing, and it's weirding me out on so many fronts."
She didn't need the reminder that he was a pretty private person. Heck, she'd known him for over a year now and still had no idea what degree he was working toward at the college. On the other hand, she knew for a fact he'd risk his own life to keep her safe.
"This is a new experience for all of us, but at least you won't be alone up there on the stage. Gage even volunteered to lead things off."
She'd been pleasantly surprised by that, although it was a huge relief that she didn't have to beg someone to take that first step down the runway. Gage was the local chief of police and an army veteran. He and Tripp had actually served together at some point in the past, the details of which neither man had ever seemed eager to share with her.
That was a discussion for another day. Right now, she had a long checklist she needed to finish up before the auction was due to start.
"I promise I'll do my best to make all of this as painless for you as possible. Right now, though, I've got to finish up a few things before the onrushing hordes start arriving."
Tripp snickered. "And what happens if these hordes you're planning on don't actually show up?"
The last thing she needed was for him to mention her worst fear out loud. What would happen if no one came? She'd lost enough sleep the past few weeks over that very idea. "Don't say that. You'll jinx everything!"
The big jerk actually looked happy for the first time all day. "What's the matter, Abs? You're not superstitious, are you?"
"I am when it comes to stuff like this. It's a lot of responsibility. We can't give even the idea of failure a chance to get a toehold in our thinking. Your group has already paid out a lot of money in advance of these events, money they can't afford to lose."
Not to mention she'd feel obligated to pay them back if her idea fell flat on its face. She'd done everything she could to keep the overhead to a minimum, but the expense would definitely put a crimp in her lifestyle for a while.
To derail any more discussion along that line, she pointed Tripp toward the tables shoved up against the wall. "Would you start dragging those out and arrange them in rows? The rest of the crew should be arriving soon to help finish setting up."
"And here I thought I was only here as part of the evening's entertainment. No one said anything about having to do a bunch of grunt work, too. How disappointing."
Despite his complaint, he headed off toward the tables. She left him to it and moved on to the next item on her list.
Ninety minutes later, Abby stood against the back wall and surveyed her surroundings. The hall was pleasantly crowded, far more so than she'd expected it to be even in her wildest dreams. So far everyone seemed to be having a good time. For sure, the caterers had outdone themselves, serving a wide variety of hors d'oeuvres coupled with wines from local vineyards, along with coffee, tea, and soft drinks.
The evening was rolling along smoothly, at least so far. There was only one problem. The actual auction was scheduled to start in fifteen minutes, and there was still no sign of Bryce Cadigan, the man Abby had hired to run the whole shebang. Bryce was a Seattle radio personality, but he'd grown up right here in Snowberry Creek. She'd checked his references, and he'd come highly recommended.
Traffic in the Puget Sound area was problematic at times, and he'd texted to let her know that he'd gotten caught in the backup caused by an accident. While she understood that had been out of his control, he'd promised to arrive an hour before the auction was supposed to begin. Judging from where he'd been when he texted her, there was no way he'd left when he should have.
Unless the crowd got super restless, she would delay the start of the festivities up to an extra half hour and then step in and do the best she could on her own. While she really didn't want to emcee the actual bachelor auction, picking the winners for the baskets wouldn't be all that hard to do.
A distinguished looking man with a scattering of silver in his dark hair stepped out of the crowd to head right for her. She'd first met Pastor Jack Haliday the day she'd presented her ideas about the fund-raiser to the veterans group. Just like Gage, he'd volunteered to be another one of her "victims," as they'd taken to calling everyone who had agreed to be auctioned off tonight. When she'd asked him if he was really sure he wanted to do it, he'd stared into the distance for several seconds before responding.
"I can't lead from behind, Abby. Helping those who served our country is important to me. I'll do whatever it takes for our mission to succeed."
As he spoke, he had the same shadows in his eyes that she sometimes saw in Tripp's and even Gage's. None of them talked much about their time in combat, but it had definitely left its mark on all three men. The power in his answer had helped carry her through all the hassles involved in getting something like this up and running.
Jack scanned the room. "I'm thrilled with the turnout tonight."
Relieved was more like it, but thrilled also worked. "I am, too. I finally feel like I can breathe again."
His smile turned sympathetic. "We never meant for you to feel that all of this was on your shoulders."
She put on a brave face. "I really didn't."
Okay, they both knew that was a lie. "Well, not all the time. One of the positives Tripp told me when he asked me to help out was that your group was used to working as a team and taking orders. He was right about that. Whenever I posted a job description that needed to be filled, there was someone ready and willing to step up to get it done. No nagging necessary. I can't tell you how refreshing that was."
"Yeah, we have a good bunch of people in the group."
He dropped his voice. "I actually came over because I noticed you keep checking the time and watching the door. Is something wrong?"
"Our guest of honor for tonight hasn't arrived. He texted to say he'd gotten stuck in a backup on I-5, but I thought he'd be here by now. If he doesn't show up soon, I'll start the evening's festivities myself by picking the winners for all the baskets."
"Good plan. Let me know if I can do anything to help."
Before she could answer, the door that led out to the parking lot opened and a tall man wearing a tuxedo walked into the room. Although she'd never met Bryce Cadigan in person, she recognized him from the pictures on his website. Well, except he'd been smiling in all the photos he'd posted there. He wasn't now.
"Whew! There he is."
She and the pastor made their way across the room to where the newcomer stood waiting for someone to notice him. Abby stopped right in front of him and stuck out her right hand. "Mr. Cadigan, I'm so glad you finally made it."
His gaze did another slow sweep of the room before he finally tipped his head down enough to look at her. When he didn't immediately speak, she launched into the necessary introductions. "We've spoken on the phone. I'm Abby McCree, and this is Pastor Haliday, the head of our local veterans group."
A slick smile slid into place on Bryce's handsome face as he gave her hand a quick shake and then offered his to Jack. "If you'll point me in the right direction, I'll get started."
He directed the comment to Jack, looking over Abby's head as if she were invisible. Jack immediately deferred to her. "Abby organized this whole thing. If you have any questions about what comes next, you should ask her."
Jack turned to face Abby more directly. The sly twinkle in his eyes made it clear he sensed her irritation and understood. "I'll go join my fellow 'auctionees' and let them know we're about to start."
He walked away without saying another word to Bryce, leaving Abby to deal with the emcee for the evening. She pulled out the crib sheets she'd typed up for him. "Here is the lineup for tonight's festivities. I'd penciled in approximate times for everything, but we're already a little behind."
She cut him off. "No need to apologize, Mr. Cadigan. I'm sure you got here as quickly as you could."
She'd meant to come across as friendly and professional, however his eyes narrowed just a touch in response. Maybe he'd picked up the hint of irritation she'd been trying to hide. "Let's head over to the stage."
A ripple of recognition followed in their footsteps as they made their way over to the door that led backstage. A few people called out Bryce's name as he passed by, but he simply offered them a quick wave and kept walking. Then one man planted himself right in front of them and blocked their path. For the first time, Bryce's smile looked genuine, and he slowed down. "Coach, I'm so glad to see you, but if I stop to talk now, we'll never get things started. I promise to find you as soon as I finish up onstage."
"Sounds good, Bryce. I just wanted to make sure you knew I was here."
They made it the rest of the way without interruption. Once they were clear of all the hubbub, Bryce stopped to read over the notes she'd given him. "This all looks pretty easy. I'll warm up the crowd a little first. After that, it's baskets and then the auction itself. Will you be close by if I do have any questions?"
"I'll be seated at the front table on this side. When you're ready for the baskets, give me a nod. I have volunteers lined up to carry them up to you. They will hold out the bag that contains the tickets for each one. After you choose the winner, the volunteer will deliver the basket to that person before returning to pick up another basket if there are any left."
Then she handed him the final printout she'd put together. "Here is the list of our 'auctionees' for the evening, otherwise known as my victims. I had each of them give you a brief bio and some interesting facts about themselves."
He glanced through the pages and actually looked genuinely impressed. "You've thought of everything, Ms. McCree. That will make everything flow more smoothly for everyone involved. Thanks for all the work you put into making my job easier."
Pleased that he'd noticed, she injected more warmth into her voice. "You're welcome." Then she pointed across the stage. "I set a small table over there with bottled water for you. I figured auctioneering is probably thirsty work."
"It is that."
"Well, if you're ready, I'll read the introduction you gave me, and then we're off and running."
For the duration of that brief conversation, Bryce seemed real and more genuine somehow. Then he shot the cuffs of his snowy-white shirt, drew a deep breath, and closed his eyes for a few seconds. When he opened them, it was as if he'd slipped on a totally different persona, and the overly polished slick charm was back in full force.
Bryce was undeniably handsome, but for some reason he left her completely cold. Crossing her fingers the audience didn't react that way, she walked out to center stage and picked up the microphone.
"If I can have everyone's attention, I'd like to introduce Snowberry Creek's very own Bryce Cadigan!"
Forty-five minutes later, Abby had dollar signs dancing in her eyes. Zoe had reported in that the ticket sales for the baskets had far exceeded everyone's expectations. Considering all of the goodies had been donated, the money taken in was pure profit. Abby had even won one of the baskets herself that she was excited about. It had come from a local bookstore and contained a wide variety of autographed books by Pacific Northwest writers.
She gave Bryce credit for keeping everyone's attention riveted on him. His opening monologue had been funny, even if it contained a few barbed comments about some of the people in the audience. She suspected a couple of the folks he'd singled out for attention didn't enjoy the experience as much as they pretended to, but they hid it pretty well.
As promised, Gage Logan had been the first victim to walk up onstage to be auctioned off. He'd quickly gotten into the spirit of the thing and made a second trip down the runway, encouraging the bidders to up the ante. After a brief flurry of bids, his price was up to almost four digits. To everyone's surprise, it was Mayor McKay who jumped to her feet and offered an even thousand dollars. Bryce immediately declared Gage sold.
The next man up was Pastor Haliday. He lacked a little of Gage's panache, but he quickly garnered his own share of bids. No one, him especially, expected Connie Pohler to counter every other bid that was offered. She was the mayor's executive assistant and had perhaps taken her cue from her boss to go big or go home. Once the bids slowed down, she stood up and offered a thousand and one dollars. Bryce's hammer came down before anyone else could say a word.
Abby was pretty sure she wasn't the only one who was staring at Connie as if they'd never really seen her before. Jack looked a little shell-shocked as he stepped down off the stage to where Connie stood waiting for him. Luckily for the them, Bryce had already announced the next candidate and the attention shifted back to the stage to see what happened next.
They were nearing the end of the auction, and Tripp would be stepping up to bat right after the woman who was up onstage now. As soon as he came into sight, Jean and her two friends sat up straighter, confirming Tripp's worst fears. That was all right. Abby would let them have fun bidding, but then she would jump in with a sniper bid high enough to shut them down.
While they might be disappointed, they'd forgive her. All three women were romantics at heart, and they all thought it was time Abby put her divorce behind her and started dating again. They'd be thrilled if she and Tripp actually got together for something more exciting than coffee and cookies at her kitchen table.
Bryce announced the man in question's name. "And finally, here we have Tripp Blackston. He is a former master sergeant in the Special Forces. After twenty years in the army, he's now living here in Snowberry Creek and attending college."
Tripp looked good in his dark green dress shirt and gray slacks, a dramatic change from his usual jeans and T-shirt. Strutting to the end of the runway, he did a three-sixty turn and smiled down at the audience. To no one's surprise, the ladies went crazy.
As soon as Bryce opened the bidding, numbers came flying in from all over the room. Not to shortchange Tripp's good looks, but Abby suspected the high interest might have had a lot to do with the amount of wine that had been consumed over the course of the evening. Regardless, Abby kept an eye on Jean and company, who were her most serious competition. To give Tripp credit, despite his earlier reservations about being up there in the first place, he really worked the crowd. When Jean upped her bid for the third time, he gave her a long, lingering look and winked. Abby was pretty sure the elderly woman swooned.
Crazy man, didn't he know the lady had a heart condition?
The bidding had already reached four digits, already bypassing the previous high bid by more than a hundred dollars. It was time to swoop in for the kill. Bryce raised his gavel in preparation to end the bidding. Abby stood up to catch his eye.
But before she could finish, another voice rang out over the room. "I bid five thousand dollars for Tripp Blackston."
For the length of a heartbeat the room went completely quiet. The shocking amount of money left even Bryce momentarily speechless, but then he slammed the gavel down. "Sold to the lady in the back for five grand!"
Abby sank back down onto her chair. Tripp looked as if he'd just been hit with a sledgehammer as he made his way down off the stage, where a stunning blonde stood waiting for him. As soon as he reached her side, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him as if she'd been lost in the desert and he was a glass of water. It seemed unlikely that he'd let a total stranger do something like that, which meant the two of them had a past.
Even after he broke off the embrace, the woman clung to him like a barnacle. A gorgeous, tall barnacle with depressingly long legs and wearing a dress that cost more than Abby's entire wardrobe. When Tripp finally glanced in Abby's direction, she mouthed a single word: "Who?"
When he answered, she really, really wished she hadn't asked. His reply was only two simple words, but they turned their whole relationship inside out and upside down.
There was a lot of guilt in his dark eyes as he answered, "My wife."