There’s been a murder in Cottonwood. Mama is having a #Christmassize hissy fit! Kenni Lowry must bring the killer to justice before the Grinch really does steal Christmas!
“Let’s get this Christmas season kicked off!” The sound of a scratching record rose about the sounds of whistle calls and festive cheers from inside of the Hunt Club’s annual Christmas Cantata. “I’m DJ Nelly. I’m excited to be the DJ at the annual Hunt Club Christmas Cantata. I’m ready to ring in the holiday season with y’all with this little ditty to start us off,” DJ Nelly said into the microphone, the black headset perched on top of her head.
You better watch out, you better not cry. The music was barely heard over the residents of Cottonwood singing along as they formed a circle in the middle of the makeshift dance floor at The Moose Lodge.
DJ Nelly from WCKK, the only radio station in Cottonwood, had more than just the regular DJ happy-go-lucky voice, she had the spirit of Christmas coursing through her veins. It was strange seeing her in person and at this hour of the night, not that it was extremely late. It was eight p.m. and on a usual night all of our small town of Cottonwood would be tucked in. Especially on this cold winter night. The fact that DJ Nelly was a morning DJ, who played toe-tapping music to get me through my morning rounds, was messing with my head.
“Here you go.” Finn Vincent walked up with a couple of bourbon and cokes to start off the festive occasion. The perfect set of white teeth underneath his mesmerizing smile sent my heart into a tailspin. “I’m looking forward to my first Cottonwood Christmas Cantata,” he said as his eyes captured mine. .
“Cheers.” He held up his plastic cup to mine.
“Merry soon-to-be Christmas.” I winked as we clinked our plastic cups together before we took a drink.
The strobe lights twirled and flashed with bright colors to the beat of the Christmas tunes DJ Nelly was spinning.
“I didn’t realize so many kids would be here.” He nodded towards the dance floor at the jumping teenagers who were singing at the top of their lungs.
“Santa Clause is Coming to Town.”
I didn’t blame them. Vivid memories of me doing the same thing were at the forefront of my mind. I was excited to show Finn all the wonderful traditions Cottonwood had to offer now that he wasn’t just my deputy, who should love all things Cottonwood since he too served the amazing small town, but my boyfriend. The only difference between then and now: Cottonwood had grown. Cottonwood had grown over the past year and it was practically impossible to know everyone like I used to. As the sheriff of Cottonwood, I wanted to know everyone who lived here.
“I thought those two weren’t supposed to be dating?” Finn pointed towards one of the long banquet tables that was covered with a table cloth that looked like Santa had thrown up all with all the symbols of Christmas at the two heads stuck together.
“Leighann Graves and Manuel Liberty,” I mused, noticing that Leighann looked a lot more grown up than the last time I’d seen her. Then, she’d come head-to-head with my five foot five inch frame. Now she appeared to have grown taller and more mature.
Leighann’s long red hair was tied up in a ponytail with what looked to be silver tinsel that was used to decorate a Christmas tree. Every time Manuel swung her around, she threw her head back and let out a great peal of laughter that echoed all over the room. Seeing her happy did make me smile.
“Leighann is now eighteen.” I took another sip of my drink. “Since she turned eighteen, I don’t think we’ve gotten any calls from her parents.”
“I’m talking about her parents, not her.” Finn brought the cup up to his mouth and took a sip. “Look at Sean.”
He gestured to one of the tables across the room where Sean and Jilly Graves were seated, alone, and furthest away from their daughter. By the looks of disgust on their faces, neither Sean or Jilly appeared to be happy that Leighann and Manuel were still an item.
Sean had his arms folded across his chest. Jilly’s face was set, her mouth was clamped, and her eyes were fixed on the young couple. Across the way, I saw Juanita Liberty with her other two sons at a table about as far away from the Graves as you could get.
“Last time I spoke with Sean, he said they were going to try and get along.” I straightened up and sighed loudly before I took another drink to try to chase away the stress of the job for just one night. “He said that Leighann was legally an adult now so there’s really nothing they can do.”
Leighann Graves graduated last year from Cottonwood High School. She wasn’t one to conform to her parent’s rules and when she didn’t, they’d called me, Sheriff Kendrick Lowry, to go out and find her.
I wasn’t sure what they expected me to do. It wasn’t like the young couple was breaking the law. Plus, Manuel worked for Sean. It wasn’t technically trespassing like Sean would tell me. I did the best I could to try to talk to the young kids, but that’s about all I could do.
“Look at Juanita.” I pointed her out to Finn.
Finn started laughing.
“What?” I asked.
“We are always so busy assessing people and their body language that we just can’t enjoy a night off.” He shook his head and reached over to hold my hand.
“Job hazard.” I winked. “But look at them. Both families have that disgusted look on their faces.”
“Why don’t they like him again?” Finn asked.
We watched as the love birds got up from their seats and moseyed up to the refreshment table.
Manuel took a couple of plastic glasses full of the best darn punch around from one of the Sweet Adelines and handed it to Leighann. You know that delicious punch, the kind that’s made from Neapolitan ice cream with a ton of Spirit cola poured over top of it? The sweet and tart was the perfect combination.
It was a bonus if you got a little bit of ice cream in the cup too. Plus, the Sweet Adelines were serving it from a real glass punch bowl and not just a plastic one, making it taste even better.
“I think it was because she kept running away from home to stay with Manuel, plus her sneaking out at night didn’t help.” I couldn’t help but smile when I noticed my mama, Vivian Lowry, handed Manuel picked a napkin and gesture for him to use it on the little bit of punch Leighann had spilled on her chin.
Mama was always mothering someone, and, in this instance, southern manners went a long way in her book. Manuel was getting a dose of Mama’s class in southern manners about right now. I also couldn’t help but notice Sean Graves shake his head and lean over to say something to Jilly before they both got up and walked towards the exit.
“They aren’t staying long.” Finn had truly gotten to be just like one of us.
It took a few months for him to understand our unspoken rules of family and friends and gossip. This was just ideal gossip between me and him.
“By the looks of Leighann and Manuel, Sean and Jilly better get used to seeing them together. Time sure hasn’t stopped the chemistry between them,” I said after Manuel had pulled Leighann in for a kiss.
Out of the corner of my eye, I happened to notice my Mama walk out from behind the refreshment table, collect my daddy and head right towards me and Finn.
“Over here,” I called and waved my hands in the air, acting as if I was inviting them over and not waiting on her to barge in like she always did. “Where have y’all been? Do you know how hard it is to save these seats?” I asked, even though I’d seen her through the dim lights doing her duty to her Auxiliary Women’s club list of volunteering.
Another one of Mama’s southern rules in life was to volunteer anywhere you could. She was on every committee she could fit into one day.
“You know your mama.” Dad rolled his eyes so hard, it made his nose curl. “First, she tried on several different outfits. Then when we got here, she took on more jobs than she’d signed up for and one of them was pouring out the punch.”
“Why?” I looked at Mama. “It’s the Moose Lodge. It’s the Hunt Club not the Sweet Adelines putting it on. You need to enjoy yourself every once in a while.”
“I wasn’t sure if they’d made all their money to put on the annual dance, so I was just helping out where needed.” Her southern drawl not only drew out her words to make them longer syllables, but it drew her hand up to her chest and she lightly tapped the pearl necklace around her neck.
Earlier in the year the Hunt Club puts on their annual gun show where they rent this space from the Moose and sell guns. The proceeds go to put on this annual Christmas dance where all those proceeds go towards the schools and library of Cottonwood.
“I mighswell tell you.” Mama’s lips pursed as her words ran together. These are words that you never wanted to hear from Mama. They had a deeper meaning when they came from her.
“Tell me what?” I encouraged her with a deep-knotted fear that I was going to regret it.
“I’m running for Snow Queen,” she proclaimed with pride. A squeal of joy broke from her lips.
“You’re what?” My jaw dropped.
Finn lifted his hand to his mouth in an efforts to try and cover up the smile on his face.
“The fame of being on the Culinary Channel has gone to her head and now thinks she needs to run for Snow Queen.” Daddy didn’t sound as enthusiastic about it as Mama did.
“Shush that up,” Mama scolded him. “You turn that frown upside down because people will see that you’re not happy for me. That’s negative.”
My eyes darted between my parents. No way, shape or form was daddy going to win this battle. Yet another defeat.
Daddy took my plastic cup and downed what I had left in my drink. “Come on, Finn.” Dad nudged his head towards the cash bar. “I’ll buy you a drink. I’m gonna need a double.”
Mama had a big ole smile on her face and graciously nodded at everyone walking by.
“What’s wrong with your hand?” I asked when I noticed she did some sort of flicking motion when someone walked by and said hello to her. “I’m sure Dr. Shively is here somewhere and can take a look at that for you.” I twisted around in my seat to see if I could find Camille Shively, the only doctor in Cottonwood and who could give Mama something for her twitching hand.
“Obviously you haven’t been watching any of those public broadcasting shows about the Queen and how they wave to their people.” She did it again. “I’m practicing. If I win, I’ll be in all the parades. These will be my people.” She gestured to the room. “I’m hoping to get one of the car dealerships to sponsor me and I can sit on the back of the seat of a convertible.”
“You’ve lost your mind.” I shook my head.
“What?” She drew back. “I know it’s winter, but convertible cars have heat. Besides, I’ve been eyeballing this fur down at Lulu’s Boutique and it’d go perfect with my hair coloring.” She sniffled and lifted the side of her finger under her nose. “What else do I have to look forward to this Christmas?” Her voice took a sharp turn from upbeat to tearful with a few extra sniffs to drive her point home.
“Here we go,” I grumbled under my held breath and drank what little cocktail was left in my cup.
Now it was my turn for a good southern scolding. My Mama was going to tell me which way was up and right now I was on the top of that list.
“You bet, here we go,” she mocked me and shook her finger. “How do you think your father feels about you leaving us on Christmas? You’re our only child. And you decide that you’re going to leave us without a Christmas after all we’ve done for you. After all these years?”
She was so mad, she could’ve started a fight in an empty house.
“I guess you wouldn’t know how your father feels because you’re still not married and I’ve got no grandchildren. Thank God for that. Hallelujah!” She threw her hands in the air. “Because it’s bad enough you’re leaving us alone for Christmas. If we had grandchildren and you took the pleasure of spending Christmas morning with them away from you, you mightswell stick me in a nursing home and never come see me.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll come see you once a year.” I teased “Or at least make sure the girls who work there will wipe your mouth after you eat.”
I patted her hand. She jerked it away from me, apparently still not amused with my jokes.
“Mama, you’ve pushed me to get a boyfriend. Now that Finn and I are dating, you’re mad.” It was a lose-lose situation with Mama if things didn’t go her way.
Mama and I had the typical southern mother/daughter relationship. It was a love/hate relationship that no matter what, in a time of need we were there for each other one-hundred percent. The problem was, she had an image of what my relationship should look like in her head, not what was real in the world.
“Yes. But I never said that you going away for Christmas was part of it. We like Finn. He’s the hunkiest male in Cottonwood.” Her words describing Finn made me feel icky inside because they shouldn’t be coming from my mother.
No denying she was right. He was heaven on earth and his tall, muscular six-foot frame was that of an angel. There was only one downfall. His northern accent threw me off sometimes, but he was starting to get a bit of a twang. Around here, we called it hillbilly.
“You know that we have traditions here. Them yankies don’t.” Mama’s face drew into a pucker.
“Mama,” I scolded her. “You can’t be calling people from Chicago yankies. He’s a northerner.”
“Northerner, yankie what’s the difference?” she spat in protest.
“The difference is, Finn Vincent is my boyfriend and he loves his family just as much as I love my family. That means that we have to visit them too. We live here, and I see you practically every day,” I reminded her. “Besides, you were okay with it a few weeks ago.”
She stuck her pointer finger up in the air.
“Christmas is once a year.” She jutted that finger towards me. “Once a year,” she emphasized. “A few weeks ago was just that. Now that we are down to the nitty-gritty of Christmas Day, I thought you’d’ve come to your senses by now and decided to stay here.”
If this would’ve been ten years ago when I was a teenager, I’d’ve tried to snap that finger off her hand.
“You two look like you’re having an intense conversation,” Finn said and sat down in the chair between me and Mama.
He had two drinks in his hand and he slid one to me. Daddy sat on the other side of Mama. She grabbed the wine out of his hand before his hind-end hit the chair.
“I’m gonna need the full bottle,” she said in a sarcastic tone.
“It’s from a box,” Daddy corrected her.
“What?” Her face contorted.
“The wine.” Daddy’s head nodded towards her glass. “It’s not from a bottle. It’s from a box up there.”
“Good Gawd.” Mama curled her lips with icy contempt. “Lord, help me. What is this world coming to?”
I shook my head and widened my eyes to let Finn know that what Mama and I had been discussing wasn’t a topic that we should be talking about. Mama had made it very clear over the past few months of her disapproval for me leaving Cottonwood during the big traditional festivities. I was going to miss being here for them since I’d not missed one since birth, but it wasn’t fair to Finn. One thing I’ve learned since dating Finn was the fact that he too had family, a big family, and they loved Christmas just as much as we did.
“Why don’t we work on your waltz since I know you’re going to win and have to do it in front of the entire town the night of the tree lighting.” Finn put his hand to Mama.
She giggled in a school girl way that made me roll my eyes before she took his hand. He guided her to her feet and she tucked her hand into his elbow, letting him lead her. She did that whole Queen wave, hand twitching gesture the whole way to the dance floor.
“She’s lost her mind,” I leaned over to my dad and whispered.
“She’s alright. She’s just trying to keep her mind occupied with you going out of town.” Dad dropped his head and looked at his glass of wine.
He wasn’t all too thrilled about me leaving for Christmas, but he’d at least accepted it.
“You know.” Dad leaned back in his chair. “I remember what it was like to leave my family for the first time at Christmas when I was dating Viv.” He glanced out at the dance floor.
Mama was having too good of a time while Finn waltzed her around the plywood floor to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.
“I remember how sad my own mom was, but when I left for good and moved here. That was a whole different story.” Dad had uprooted his life to move to Cottonwood and it was a story he rarely told. “The look in my mama’s eye is the same look in your mama’s eyes. It’s just a change. Viv will get used to it, but in the meantime, if she wants to be in the Snow Queen pageant to occupy her time and it makes her happy.” He smiled. “Then I support her.”
I reached over and took my dad’s hand.
“It’s only one Christmas,” I assured him and gave his hand a squeeze. “I’m actually looking forward to it.” I drew my hand back and wrapped it around my plastic cup. I’d only met his sister and I was looking forward to meeting the rest of his family. “He’s looking forward to me meeting them.”
“Honey, your Mama is worried that you’re going to go up there, love it and never come back.” Dad patted me on the arm. “By the way you look at that boy, I’m a little worried too.”
“There’s nothing to worry about.” I gulped and suddenly came to the realization that the thought of ever living outside of Cottonwood never crossed my mind.
“If Finn doesn’t want to live in Cottonwood his entire life, it’s an issue.” Dad’s words didn’t comfort me any.
I dragged the cup to my mouth as I watched Finn spin Mama in one direction. On the outskirt of the spin, Mama did that hand-ticking wave thing to whoever was watching and when Finn pulled her back in, she carefully placed her hand on his shoulder like she’d already had the Snow Queen crown on her head.
“Do we know who else is in the running for queen?” I asked because I silently wanted to offer up a little pray for their safety.
“No. And God bless their hearts who do run against her.” Daddy took a big swig of his cocktail and planted a big smile on his face when he saw Mama coming back. “She has practice this week at the fairgrounds. Then we’ll know who her competition will be.”
Once Mama gets something in her head, she doesn’t stop at any expense to get it. It was all part of our southern upbrining. I wasn’t too off that mark myself. Ever heard of the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree? Well, Mama was the tree and I was the apple. Only I hid my crazy better than she did.
Mama wanted me to go to college and find me a nice man to bring home to Cottonwood where I’d be in her clubs and volunteer alongside of her, but when I told her I was going to the police academy to follow in the footsteps of her dad, my Poppa, Elmer Sims, she threw a hissy fit bigger than a toddler wanting a piece of candy they couldn’t have that was dangling in front of them.
“That was fun.” Mama winked at Finn. I glared at her. It was one thing for her to like my boyfriend, but to blatantly flirt with him was another. And he knew it, egging her on every time.
“My pleasure.” Finn kissed the top of the hand that she’d offered him.
He was good at manipulating her like putty in his fingers. It was only him that talked some sense into her when she’d stomped around for a few days insisting I was trying to kill her by not being here for Christmas. But now, it seemed she’d gotten back on the pity wagon about it.
“Now what about you?” He turned to me with an outstretched hand. “A dance around the floor?”
Before I could even answer, there was a big ruckus going on over at the snack table near the punch bowls. Manuel and a girl that wasn’t Leighann were screaming at each other at the top of their lungs. Manuel grabbed Leighann by the arm and jerked her back from the girl after Leighann started screaming at her too. Finn sprinted across the room, breaking up the three in the heated argument.
“Man, you better tell her to lay off,” Manuel threatened.
“Just stop it!” Leighann screamed at Manuel and then looked at the girl. “You’ve always been jealous of me,” she said through gritted teeth. “Get out of my life! Forever!”
“No problem. You’re dead to me!” The girl turned on the balls of her feet and swung around.
“What’s going on?” I asked after I moseyed on over, not in too big of a hurry because Finn seemed to have it under control.
“Nothing.” Manuel jerked free of Finn and tugged down on the hem of his shirt. His muscular arms flexed without him even trying. “I told you that you need to keep better friends.” His mustache quivered, and he pointed to Leighann. She was visibly upset.
Angela Durst had come to Leighann’s side and pulled out a Kleenex from the pocket of her Christmas vest. Angela was Sean Graves’s secretary at the towing company. She’d seen Leighann grow up.
Leighann wiped her eyes while Angela rubbed Leighann’s long red hair down her back. Beka, Angela’s daughter walked up and asked Manuel what was going on. He didn’t answer her.
“It’s nothing, sheriff.” Leighann gave a fake smile. “Merry Christmas.”
Manuel grabbed Leighann’s hand. “Let’s get out of here, babe.”
“Don’t babe me.” She jerked away but followed him anyways. “You’ve run off every single friend I’ve ever had.”
“You need better friends,” he said back to her.
“Are you two okay?” I asked again before they darted out the door. They didn’t bother answering me.
Finn and I looked at each other.
“Do you think they’re okay?” He asked me.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine.” Angela shrugged. “They’ve had worse fights than this.”
“It’s getting colder out there. I think the big winter storm is going to be moving in quicker than they predicted. Get this,” DJ Nelly’s excitement blurted out of the speakers and interrupted our conversation with Angela. “We just might have a white Christmas.”
The cheers from the crowd were catching on and soon everyone in the room was singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”. Even me.
“No, no, no.” Finn shook his head. “No white Christmas here.”
“It’s beautiful when it snows in Cottonwood.” I smiled with fond memories of sledding and how they had horse drawn carriages for the tree lighting ceremony.
“Not if we can’t get out of here on that big bird to go see my folks.” Finn face grew stern.
“Don’t worry.” I brushed off the white Christmas and any notion the airport in Lexington would close down. “What does a DJ know about weather? She barely knows what today’s hits are, much less how to predict snow.” I laughed and tugged him out on the dancefloor.
I didn’t dare say it, but it would be my luck that we’d get this big storm and here I’d be.