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Blossoms, Barbeque, & Blackmail Chapters 1-3

Chapter One

The lazy heat drifting up from the water told me it was time for me to paddle the kayak back to the shore. I’d drifted long enough down the stream that ran along the front of the Red Fox Trail, the trail that lead straight up to Happy Trails Campground.

I was living the old saying about camping being good therapy. After all, I’d been keeping myself busy after the last few months so I didn’t think about Hank Sharp, my ex-boyfriend, moving away to take a job clear across the state of Kentucky. Now that I’ve settled into the fact he wasn’t coming back and letting myself feel the feelings, I’d taken that old saying seriously.

The bubbles rippling up through the water made me smile at the fact there was so much life to explore in the Daniel Boone National Forest and not just as the owner of Happy Trails Campground. Letting myself take on new adventures, like lying in a kayak for hours, was something new to me. I was always on the go-go-go and making sure everyone around me was okay, and I’d completely neglected myself.

I reached down next to me to grab the oar. Laughter echoed off the tall trees, reminding me that even deep in the woods I wasn’t alone. A couple of swipes of the water with my oar to the right and then to the left, repeating the pattern over and over as the kayak slid across the water upstream was a good workout.  I only stopped for a moment to take in the waterfall and watch as the water lapped over the stone edges to settle in the pool where a family of  hooded mergansers were enjoying themselves.

Yip! Fifi, my toy poodle, wanted to say hello to the duck family before she decided to join them, jumping out of the kayak and into the water.

“Fifi, get back here.”

I shifted course by maneuvering my oar to paddle in her direction. Her little head bobbled up over the water’s surface. She was so lazy. She knew her hot-pink life jacket would keep her above water, so she spent her energy on talking to the ducks before they decided they wanted nothing to do with her and flew off.

“I told you to stay.” I reached over the side and grabbed hold of the life jacket, pulling her wet body back into the kayak. “You just never listen.” I pulled the beach towel from underneath me and wrapped her up in it to sop up the water.

She shook, spraying the extra water I’d not gotten off with the towel, sending droplets all over me.

“Pft, pft.” I spat and held my hands up to my face to try and shield any from going into my mouth.

Now, after paddling a bit faster to get back to Red Fox Trail, Fifi decided her little swim had worn her out. She lay on the towel and let the warmth of the sun send her off into a nap. And this short rest was much needed for myself because once I hiked back up the trail to the campground, I was going to be all sorts of busy with tonight’s campground kickoff for my camping guests to this weekend’s Blossom Festival.

The Tour Southern and Eastern Kentucky Association was a group who hosted tours throughout Kentucky that traditionally featured the gorgeous springtime redbuds in and around the Bluegrass State. As a tourist town, Normal, where hiking and camping provided our main economic income, we capitalized on the Association’s tour by hosting what we called Blossom Festival.

It was taking place this weekend with most of the festival activities being hosted in downtown Normal, mainly in the grassy median area.

The water shoes were a lifesaver and saved my feet from not only slipping but getting poked by the uneven rocks when I hopped out at the banks to pull the kayak to dry land.

“Thanks,” I said to the young man who worked for Alvin Deters when he came to get the oars and kayak from me.

Alvin Deters and I had gone into business since the trail was located on my property that dumped down to the stream. Alvin was a local man who owned Deters Feed-N-Seed. He was once a kayak champion in his younger years, which made him a perfect person to go into business with, the opportunity to use the stream on the trail for an extracurricular activity for my guests. Though Alvin was in his later years of life, he enjoyed teaching kayak lessons to families that stayed at Happy Trails Campground when he wasn’t running the Feed N Seed.

“Let’s go, Fifi.” I called her to join me on the hike back up the trail.

She barked and chased the squirrels as she darted past me, pursuing them into the woods just off the edge of the path. The sunlight freckled my skin without the sweltering heat of the summer weather.  Though I couldn’t see Fifi, I could hear her barking.

The dry leaves crunched under my water shoes with each step closer to the campground. Before too long, I’d be joining the group with the sound of laughter that fluttered on the light breeze whipping down the trail.

Red Fox Trail had gotten its name long before I’d moved into the campground. From what I understood and from what I’ve seen over the last few years living here, red foxes did live on that side of the campground and frequented the stream of water.

During the daylight hours, they were rarely seen, which meant it was okay for me to let Fifi run amok. It was when dusk fell over Happy Trails, Fifi never went outside without a leash and me attached to the other end.

“Maybelline!” Dottie Swaggert, the manager of the campground, waved her hands over her bright-red short hair to grab my attention as soon as I emerged from the forest. “You ain’t gonna believe what I’ve done.”

She pointed to Helen Pyle, the owner of Cute-icles Hair Salon. I could only imagine what the two of them were up to.

“Let me guess.” I tapped my temple after I’d made it over to the covered shelter on the outside of the recreational building at the front of the campground. “You two are bedazzling something?”

Helen and Dottie had gotten a bedazzling machine from a yard sale, and they’d been using that sucker on anything that couldn’t move away from them.

“No, but that would be a very good thing to do with a dress.” Helen couldn’t contain her grin no matter how hard she tried. “You’d be the purtiest one out there, Dottie.”

Dottie looked up into the open blue sky above like she was really noodling the idea. She crossed one arm under the other and held her cigarette out, away from her body, before she slowly brought it up to her mouth and took a long drag.

“Not a bad idea.” She wiggled her painted-on brows.

“So what dress is needing bedazzled?” I asked.

“I’ve just signed up to compete in the Ms. Blossom Festival Pageant.” Dottie blew a steady stream of smoke out of her mouth. “We can even put my winning title on the campground brochure.”

“Good idea,” Helen encouraged Dottie when Dottie needed zero encouragement.

“I can see it now.” Dottie uncurled her arms and spread her hands out in front of her, the cigarette leaving a trail of smoke. “Ms. Blossom Festival lives here.”

My phone chirped from my back pocket, and it couldn’t have been at a more perfect time.

“Mary Elizabeth.” I held the phone in the air. “Gotta take it.” I hit the green button. “Hey. Thank goodness you just saved me from probably saying something to Dottie that wouldn’t’ve been good.”

“Oh, good,” Mary Elizabeth, my adoptive mama, said with an upbeat tone. “I’ve got something to tell you.” She rushed to get it out. “I’ve entered the Ms. Blossom Festival.”

“You what?” I asked, so I could make sure I heard her and not replayed Dottie’s bit of news.

“Yep. I’m going to win too. With my southern hospitality and good manners, I just know I will woo the judges.”

Oh, dear me. Oh my, I sure didn’t misunderstand her.

“It’s going to be amazing. Not only will I get an interview with Channel 2 and a spread in the National Park Magazine as well as the Normal Gazette, but I will also get a five thousand dollar grand prize! Five thousand dollars!” Mary Elizabeth squealed. “That is the exact cost of the repairs from the fire.”

I glanced over at Dottie. Helen Pyle had her fingertips plunged into Dottie’s short red hair, pulling it up, taking a look at it, then using her fingertips to shake it out.

“I swear my ability to forgive Dottie for what she did is paying off in spades.” Mary Elizabeth was the co-owner of the Milkery, the local dairy farm, which had a bed and breakfast. When my foster brother married my dear friend, Abby, Dottie had accidentally lit one of the rooms at the bed and breakfast on fire when she decided to smoke.

Mary Elizabeth had been in such a shock the following days after, that it took her a minute to register Dottie was smoking inside when it was strictly prohibited. Since then, Mary Elizabeth had been a little bitter about it—okay, a lot of bitter—and things between them had been tense.

Mary Elizabeth had refused to hang out with my group of friends, the Laundry Club Ladies, which Dottie was a big part of, and now they both were going to be contestants in the Ms. Blossom Festival?

“May-bell-ine!” Dottie hollered at me. I pulled the phone down to my neck to see what she was saying. “I’m gonna git me a new do!” She pointed to her hair as Helen grinned from ear to ear.

I gave her the okay sign with my fingers and went back to the phone call with Mary Elizabeth. There was no way I could deal with both of them doing the pageant. I never ever would’ve thought the two of them would have interest in the sixty years and up pageant.

“Isn’t the pageant tomorrow night?” I questioned and looked to the entrance of the campground when I heard a car.

“Mm-hmm. I got in just before the deadline closed today at lunch and just got word I have been entered. So tonight when I come for the party, I’m going to need your fashion eye on how I walk. You have lived in New York City, and with all your swanky friends there, I’m sure you’ve been to plenty of fashion shows that had those catwalks. Plus, all of those manner and etiquette lessons you attended when you were in high school is still the standard today.”

I hated to burst her bubble, but I never attended any sort of pageant, nor did I ever want to be in a pageant, but she was right about one thing from my past life in the city: I did go to a lot of fashion shows. Looking back, I was sure my ex-now-dead husband, Paul, had sent me to those fashion shows to keep me occupied from finding out about his criminal ways.

“I’ll be over with my potato salad.” She hung up the phone.

I wandered up to the office to greet Ethel Biddle and her bandmates of Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys when their station wagon pulled around the corner and parked next to the recreational building where they’d be setting up for their music gig.

“Adolescent” was used very loosely.

“How’s the newlyweds?” Otis Gullett, the fiddle player, asked about Bobby Ray and Abby.

“You’ll be able to ask them yourself tonight. They’ll be here any minute.” I was especially anticipating Bobby Ray coming over since I’d not seen a whole lot of him lately.

When he got married, he moved out of the bungalow in the campground and bought the very cheap model home across the street from Ava Cox, a local lawyer, where he and Abby live now.

“Rosco!” Ethel’s dog jumped out of the station wagon. “Fifi will be so happy to see you.”

“That’s a change.” Ethel knew I had a little beef against Rosco when he couldn’t keep to himself that time she brought him to the campground during her first gig, when I was babysitting Fifi. Yep. I didn’t own Fifi at one time, but Rosco changed that.

Fifi was a very prestigious show dog, nationally recognized by the Kennel Club Association. She’d come from a long line of winners and her breed line was flawless until Rosco.

“If it weren’t for Rosco and his male dog ways, I wouldn’t’ve been given Fifi.” It was a real catch twenty-two. At the time, I was terrified to tell Tammy Jo, Fifi’s original owner, but when she abandoned the pregnant Fifi, I stepped in to care for the pooch. I wasn’t sure how to look after a dog full time, much less one that was prissy and pregnant. It turned out to be a good thing because it taught me to care for something other than myself. I’d like to think I wasn’t selfish before Fifi, but now I could see I was pretty selfish and only really took care of me. I’d like to think Fifi changed me for the better.

In other words, I had Rosco to thank for that.

“Come on, Rosco. Let’s go find Fifi.” I whistled for Rosco. He trotted down the campground road with me.

Happy Trails Campground was a full-service campground that offered lots to all classes of RVs. Most of those lots were in a large circle around the lake located in the middle of the campground and just past the office and recreational building.

We also had a tent-only section in the back and off to the left of the main campground just past the few bungalows we also rented.

Dottie, Ty Randal, Henry Bryant, and I all made Happy Trails our full-time home. Ty was the only one who didn’t work for me. He owned the Normal Diner and was supplying the hamburgers for tonight’s grill out.

“Let me know if you need any more firewood,” I told one of the guests who was stoking up their campfire. “We have plenty,” I assured them.

Henry, my handyman, was priceless. He took pride in making sure all the campers had everything they needed after they checked in at the office. Since we were a full-service hookup, we practically stayed full year-round.

“I smell something good,” I sang to another guest who had a huge pot over their campfire for the big party.

Every month, I hosted a campground party that was open to the locals. I loved how everyone came out to listen to the bluegrass music of Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys while they walked around and sampled what each camper was making over their fire.

It was a great way to walk around and get to know people. I offered the main course while everyone else cooked a side dish. People in the community would also bring a dish to put on the community table for the taking, like Mary Elizabeth with her potato salad.

The dessert table was my favorite.  And tonight’s tasty sweets were compliments of Christine Watson, the owner of the Cookie Crumble Bakery.

Rosco darted ahead of me when he saw Fifi before I did. They jumped around and took turns sniffing each other’s backsides. I wondered if Fifi remembered he was her pups’ daddy. I shoved the thought to the back of my head when cackling echoed throughout the campground, making me look over my shoulder.

The Laundry Club Ladies had arrived, and all of them were laughing at Dottie who’d obviously told them she was going to participate in the pageant and was doing her best one-foot-in-front-of-the-other walk, hand on her hip, down the pier that jutted out into the lake.

I continued to make my way around the lake and greet the guests, taking a few looks into their campfire cooking pots.

“Good evenin’! Welcome to the paarrrteee!” Blue Ethel shrieked from the microphone. “Hit it, boys!” She threw her hand up in the air, signaling their very first song.

Seeing a few guests already on the plywood dance floor in front of the stage made my heart sing. I knew it was going to be a great night, and this group of campers were going to be fun.

Over the past couple of years, my guests had started to vary in age. I had the retired full-timers to the young newlyweds as well as families. There seemed to be a good mix, and I was happy to see how all the generations came together.

Blissful.

“I don’t believe it.” Mary Elizabeth spat as she popped off the lid to her homemade cole slaw. “Did you know Dottie is going to compete?” Mary Elizabeth scoffed. “My goodness.” She fiddled with the pearls around her neck. “You don’t think she’s gonna win, do you?” She drew back. “Honestly, she’s not got a mannered bone in her body. The way she flings that cigarette around and wears hot-pink sponge curlers.” She tsked. “Do you?”

“I’m not getting into this.” I should’ve just walked away. I ought to kick my own self in the heinie for staying.

“Maybelline Grant West.” She gasped. “Are you telling me that you aren’t going to support your mama? We are family.”

“We all love each other, and it’s high time you forgive Dottie for the fire. It was taken care of and almost everything was donated, so I’m not sure why on earth you’re still holding a grudge.” My mouth watered when I looked down at her homemade mustard potato salad.

“If it ain’t two of my favorite gals.” Bobby Ray had snuck up behind us.

“Bobby Ray!” I twirled around and threw my arms around his neck.

“Why, Maybelline, I didn’t get this kind of greeting from you when I showed up right over there two years ago after I’d not seen you in ten years.” He grinned like a possum.

“Stop it.” I playfully smacked him on the chest before Mary Elizabeth took her stab at him.

“Give me some shugga.” She pulled him to her and wrapped him up in a big mama bear hug. “You ain’t going to believe what’s happened.” She hooked her arm in the crook of Bobby Ray’s and dragged him aside, away from me since she was going to try to get the sympathy from him that I wasn’t giving her.

“Help,” he mouthed with a grin over his shoulder.

“Ah-oh. What’s that all about?” Abby Fawn, now Abby Bond, asked.

“Abby!” I was so happy to see her too. “You don’t want to know. Tell me, how’s the house?”

The two of us strolled over to the pier where Dottie was still talking about the pageant until they noticed Abby.

“She was just telling me about the house.” I sat her in the middle of the group.

“It’s great. I even joined the neighborhood women’s club.” She pulled her hands up over her mouth to shield her laughter. “I honestly can’t believe how happy we are. The house is too big for us, but Bobby Ray wants to fill it with children.”

“You aren’t?” I looked at her belly.

“Goodness, no!” She overexaggerated.

“I can’t believe you bought that house.” Dottie shivered. “I wouldn’t buy no house where there was a murder.”

“And that way of thinking is why no one wanted to buy it and why we got it cheap.” Abby didn’t care. “Which brings me to some news.”

“Oh, gosh.” I held my hand to my heart. “I can’t take any more news today.”

Mary Elizabeth and Dottie’s news about did me in.

“Bobby Ray found his birth mother,” Abby said.

My posture slumped, slightly.

 

Chapter Two

There were always general rules in a campground. They were all geared to be polite and courteous to the other guests. But last night’s party was one for the books. Blue Ethel and the Adolescent Farm Boys played an extra set with the coaxing of the crowd. All the food was eaten, and when I went to bed, the sound of leaves crunching, laugher and voices, kids yelling, and cans popping open echoed throughout the darkness.

When the soft kiss of the morning sunrise filtered throughout my little campervan, I pulled the covers over my head. I had a feeling today was going to be a long day, and it wasn’t the fact the Ms. Blossom Pageant was tonight and both Dottie and Mary Elizabeth begged me to pledge my loyalty to them underneath the full moon.

I didn’t.

I kept that lip shut tight.

Arf, Arf.  As soon as Fifi saw movement from me, she darted off the bed and headed straight to the door.

“Fine. Fine,” I grumbled and sat up. The ponytail holder had fallen out of my hair, springing the curls to life. “I’ll be right there.”

I looked to the left and to the right as I patted my hand around my sheets to find my ponytail holder. After I finally found it, I pulled my hair up in a messy bun and got out of bed. On my way down the short hall, I slipped on a Happy Trails Campground sweatshirt over my nightshirt.

“Go on.” I flipped the lock of the campervan door.

“Good morning!” Ty Randal was standing across from my camper at the edge of the lake and beach with his fishing pole in the water. “Hey, sweet girl.”

His shaggy blond hair looked a lot more blond since summer hit. The tank top showed off his nice tan.

He laid his pole on the ground and bent down to pat on Fifi.

“Good morning. I didn’t get to thank you for the awesome burgers last night.” I walked up to him, and Fifi darted, I’m sure in fear I was going to pick her up.

Ty and I laughed, watching her scurry from truck to truck and camper to camper sniffing all she could. It looked like she’d found some stray food around a smoldering campfire a few lots down.

“You’re welcome. I’m sorry I couldn’t come down to grill them myself, but the festival is the biggest I’ve ever seen it.” Ty’s diner, Normal Diner, was smack-dab in the middle of downtown and where the festival was being held. “I’ve got another pole you can throw in.”

“You bait and I’ll throw.” Even though I liked living here and all the fun that went along with owning a campground, I didn’t like anything slimy.

Including worms.

“Here.” He picked up his extra pole and handed it to me while he carefully took the line in his fingers and slid them down to the hook. He held it steady with one hand and reached down into the small Styrofoam container to retrieve a big, fat worm.

“Ewwww.” I groaned and looked away when he started to put the squirmy worm on.

“Throw in.” He wiped his hands down his pants and picked up his pole. His line was still in the water. His blue eyes danced with laughter.

“I’m surprised you’re out here so early.” I reeled in and cast again.

“I woke up and saw some activity out here.” He was talking about the fish. “And I thought I’d spend the fishing and watching the sunrise. Something I didn’t do much of in Los Angeles.”

“I’m sure there’s a lot of things you did there that you didn’t do here.” I liked talking to Ty. He was genuine and honest. Plus he was the epitome of a southern gentleman.

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t be able to see my brothers grow up if I’d not moved back and helped out Dad.” Ty was an up-and-coming chef, and when his dad had a heart attack, he threw that career to the wind and moved back to care for his dad and help raise his brothers since his mom had passed.

“You’re always a glass-half-full guy.” I threw the line in a few more times without getting as much as a bite, so I reeled it in and put the rod on the ground. “I’ve got to get going. I’m meeting up with the ladies then helping Gert with her booth at the festival.”

“Stop by the diner. I’ve got fried bologna sandwich on special today.” He waved me off.

“Fifi!” I clapped my hands. “Let’s eat!”

Eat was all she had to hear in order to get her to meet me at the camper.

Since I was going to work with Gert in her Trails Coffee Shop booth, I wanted to promote the campground, so I wore my short-sleeved Happy Trails Campground shirt and a pair of shorts with tennis shoes. My hair was up on the top of my head in a messy bun, making it perfect for my neck to stay cool while I worked under the tent.

I anticipated her booth was going to be busy. One, because she had the best coffee and two, because it was going to be a hot day and iced coffee was sure to quench a thirst.

“You be a good girl.” Fifi had gobbled up her kibble. As usual, she had a full belly and was ready for a nice long nap, which would hold her until lunchtime when it was time for me to come back and let Dottie off work.

It was her morning to work the campground office and my afternoon.

On my way out, I stopped by the office to check on her and make sure she was all set before I went downtown.

“How you doing this morning?” I asked when I noticed her head was down on the desk.

“Well, hell’s bells, May-bell-ine, how you do think I’m doin’?” She lifted her head. Big dark circles had found a nice home under her eyes. “I’m a wreck. I’m thinkin’ my first appearance needs to be one of the magazines or newspapers ’cause I’ve been up all night.”

“Huh?” I questioned.

“As Ms. Blossom Festival. Errg,” she groaned and snarled.

“Oh. Yeah. Right.” I nodded. “I’ll be back at lunch. Call me if you need me.”

“Don’t be late,” she warned. “I’ve got an appointment with Helen Pyle for a full makeover and run-through of my appearance.”

“I won’t be late,” I assured her.

“Ya know, festival traffic might make you late! So leave early!” Dottie hollered before I shut the door.

I put the images out of my mind how Dottie was going to look after Helen Pyle got her hands on her and decided to roll down the windows in my little Focus.

The sun was already smacking the gravel road. The heat was coming, and it would bring out so many tourists. Hardy wildflowers popped out from the road’s shoulder on my ride into downtown, making it very tempting for me to stop and pick some. I loved to have local flowers to set around in small vases around the campground and in my camper. Kentucky had such gorgeous foliage that I wanted to show it off to anyone around me.

Main Street, one way each of the grassy median. The middle wasn’t just grass, it was actually a large piece of land with huge, hundred-year-old oak trees, stepping-stone paths, picnic tables, amphitheater, and where the Blossom Festival activities were being held.

The sidewalks in front of all the cottage-style shops were dotted with gaslit carriage lights that had either a Blossom Festival banner hanging from the dowel rod or a large fern.

There were twinkling lights around each light pole, giving our little town such a romantic feel at night and creating a magical feeling.

The shops ranged from the Smelly Dog, which was a pet groomer owned by Ethel Biddle, to Normal Diner, which was Ty’s diner, as well as the Tough Nickel Thrift Shop and Deters Feed-N-Seed, along with some boutique-type shops. Mary Elizabeth had asked if I would meet her at one of them to try on a dress for the pageant.

Of course I told her I would, but I’d never let Dottie know that. Besides, Dottie had Helen Pyle. And as much as I wanted to stay neutral, Mary Elizabeth was my adoptive mother.

Speaking of adoptive mothers. She was also Bobby Ray’s, so when Abby dropped the bombshell that Bobby Ray had found his birth mother, I was a little taken aback since I had no idea he was looking for her.

He didn’t talk about it much, but when we were growing up, I did know his mother had given him up at birth, and at that time not many babies were being adopted in Perrysburg, so he ended up going from foster home to foster home until he finally made it to Mary Elizabeth.

It was something I wanted to hear more about, but today was not the day to bring it up.

I had to park my car at the Laundry Club Laundromat since the sheriff’s department had Main Street blocked off for the festival.

I darted across the street since Trails Coffee Shop was opposite the laundromat. I couldn’t believe the small courtyards between the freestanding cottage-style homes were practically packed with tourists and festival goers.

It was great to see everyone excited and the owners too. The display windows of each shop even had displays of the different blossoms that grew in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Alvin Deters did a great display with a redbud tree with a tent pitched underneath and a kayak next to that. The small campfire he’d erected had bottles of bug spray, tan lotions, water cantinas, and things you’d need if you were camping. This was the exact type of thing you’d find for sale in his shop.

Even Gert had a fun display of a campfire with her version of cowboy coffee and instant coffee packs she not only made herself but also sold in the coffee shop. She was appealing more to the tent camping folks who didn’t have the luxury of a coffee maker in an RV or camper.

The sidewalk was filled with people milling around, which meant that there were people in the town and possible customers for the campground, and my choice of clothing would be a perfect conversation piece when I served them coffee.

“Good morning.” I rushed behind the counter when I noticed there was already a line to the door. “I can help take orders.”

“You’re a lifesaver.” Gert laid a hand on my arm, and we rushed over to one of the machines.

The morning was exhilarating and exhausting without a moment to rest. I was pleased as punch to have been given the opportunity to tell a few customers about the campground when they asked about my shirt. But mainly I was fielding observations from them about the cool living wall inside of the coffee shop.

Gert had gone to great lengths to not only find the right designer but architect to build the wall of live plants from the various seasons in Kentucky. It truly was one of the neatest things about the coffee shop.

“Now that we are settled down a little bit…” Gert glanced around the shop. Her employees were able to handle what customers were in there as well as restock all of the items like condiments and bags of coffee they’d sold. “Do you think you could help me with the booth now?”

“Sure.” I pulled the phone out of my pocket to check the time. “I’ve got to meet Mary Elizabeth in about an hour, then I have to go home to relieve Dottie for the afternoon.”

All of a sudden I got a tickle and started laughing.

“Both of them have entered the Ms. Blossom Pageant.” Gert looked at me with wide open eyes and joined me in the giggling fit.

“Can you imagine if one of them wins?” She put her hands on each side of her head. “We’d never hear the end of it.”

“I know. Dottie already thinks she’s got it in the bag because she was up all night thinking about what interviews she was going to do first.” I untied the apron from around my waist and handed it to her. She retrieved a fresh one from underneath the counter before she had me follow her through the coffee shop and out the door where we spilled out on the bustling sidewalk.

“Mary Elizabeth has already spent the money they get if they win.” I put my hand up over my eyes to shield the sun and looked toward the white tents in the median.

“My goodness. I don’t envy you.” Gert shook her head, and we made our way across the grass where her booth sat next to the amphitheater.

“This is Mae. She’s going to hang here while you take a break.” Gert introduced me to one of the local teenagers she employed during the summer. “You know Betts.”

“Of course I do.” I gave my friend a hug before I took my spot to help her with the line. “Wait until I tell you about Dottie,” I said to her out of the side of my mouth and was about to tell her when a little scuffle played out in front of us.

“The nerve you have showing up here like this.” A woman who looked to be in her fifties glared at a young man around my age or slightly older. “Haven’t you done enough to our family? What, are you stalking us now? Are you going to kill me next?”

“Listen, Carrie,” the man put his hands out in front of him. “I am here to get a coffee. That’s it. I didn’t even know you were here.”

“Well, I am.” Her chest heaved up and down, shaking.

“Get out of here, Dresser.” Another young man hurried up between the woman and the man she accused of tormenting her. “I swear, I’ll go get Al Hemmer.”

So Al Hemmer was the local sheriff, and that was like saying he was going to get Fifi. Not much different. In my opinion.

“I’m getting a coffee, then I’ll leave.” The man turned and looked me square in the eye. “Iced mocha, please.”

I gulped when I noticed the woman took her purse and brought it up over her head.

“Watch out!” I yelled, just in time for him to get hit over the top of the head.

“I’ll kill you! I will kill you!” She yelled with a fury. Her face was red, and she was whaling the air as the other guy dragged her off by her waist.

“Carrie.” Betts ran out of the booth. “Carrie, this isn’t the place.”

“I will kill you, Jason Dresser!” Carrie was kicking her feet in the air and flailing her arms as the other young man carted her off.

“Just wait until you find out what I know!” he yelled back at her.

Betts followed them over to a picnic table. The young man had faced Carrie the opposite direction, so her back was to us, but he didn’t stop glaring at my customer.

“Forget it.” He shook his head and walked off, going the opposite direction of the woman threatening his life.

“What was that about?” I asked Betts when she walked back over.

“Carrie and her husband grew up here. She used to be a big volunteer in the community until about a year ago when her daughter was hiking during hunting season and was accidentally shot by Jason Dresser.”

It was a horrible story that I was sad to say did happen one too many times around here.

“I vaguely remember something about it.” It was hard to recall since I’d been so busy with the campground. I barely had enough time to listen to any sort of news.

“Jason was in jail for it. She was with her best friend, and when she got shot, the best friend identified Jason as the shooter. Jason was devastated.” Betts glanced back over to the picnic table where Carrie had her head buried in her hands with the other young man consoling her. “He went to jail and made bail. I think his trial is coming up.”

“Gosh.” I just couldn’t imagine. “Is that Carrie’s son?”

“No. That’s Monica’s fiancé. Was her fiancé. Monty Noe.” Betts frowned. “They had this huge wedding planned. It was sad.”

“I can’t even imagine. But why was Jason on that trail and not in a hunting area?” There were specific areas used only for hunting, and anyone—especially anyone who lived here—knew not to go near them during hunting season.

“That’s not been told yet, but his attorney swears they will have their day in court.” She shrugged and turned back to help the next person in line.

 

Chapter Three

“I’d much rather be making people’s coffee,” I muttered to Mary Elizabeth from inside of the clothing boutique she’d dragged me to.

“I can’t believe you’d treat me that way,” Mary Elizabeth teased.

“You know I love you, but I liked the blue dress on you.” I had told her about my opinion after each dress, but she still continued to try on at least ten more after we agreed on the blue one. “It goes great with your hair and your pearls.”

Both of which had never changed since I’d gone to live her with her in my midteens.

“Fine. Let me try it on again.” She stood in front of the three-paneled mirror in a flowered number, twisting and turning to each side before she finally headed back in the dressing room.

“Are you doing okay?” The woman I’d seen earlier at the coffee stand, Carrie Patillo, asked.

“Gosh. We are fine, but are you okay?” I had to ask. She looked at me funny. “I was working at the coffee booth when you got upset, and my friend Betts helped you out.”

“I’m sorry you had to see that. I guess I’m not fine with my daughter’s killer walking the streets. It’s like he has no care in the world, and he has free will to do whatever he wants while my daughter is dead. She has no say on what she’s doing today. He took that from her.” She started to tear up.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t’ve brought it up.” I wanted to crawl in a hole. I had no idea what I was thinking.

“Hi.” The salesclerk came up and put her hands on Carrie’s shoulders. “Why don’t you go home, and I’ll stay all day. I have nothing do to.”

Carrie held her finger under her nose and nodded, leaving the salesclerk with me.

“I’m sorry. I have no idea why I opened my big mouth,” I said.

“Gosh, no. You didn’t know how she’d react. We all want to make sure her well-being is taken care of.” She looked around. “It’s been rough, and we were hoping time would help, but she’s only gotten worse.”

“Well, when you see her, please tell her I’m sorry.” It was all I knew to say.

Thankfully, Mary Elizabeth had come out of the dressing room, taking the heat off me.

“That looks great!” The salesclerk’s eyes lit up. “What’s the occasion?”

“I’m going to be the next Ms. Blossom,” Mary Elizabeth beamed from what she felt in her heart was the truth of her words.

“Is that right?” The clerk pinched a sweet grin. “I can certainly see you winning in that dress.” She winked, sealing the sell.

After we left the boutique, there wasn’t any time for me to do anything else at the festival. Mary Elizabeth had eaten up all my free time, and it was time to head back to relieve Dottie, who would have a fit if I was late.

When I got back, I had just enough time to get Fifi and grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before Dottie was chomping at the bit to leave.

“Let me know if you need anything from here before I leave to come to the festival.” I’d already posted on the office door at the beginning of the week that we’d be closing the office early so I could go to the festival. I didn’t realize I’d be going to the pageant.

“Just so we are clear, I might need some time off work next week so I can get in all the interviews.” She grabbed her cigarette case off her desk. “If you do decide to get me some flowers for my win, do you mind picking up some of the lilies at Sweet Smell Flower Shop?”

“Is that a thing?” All of a sudden, this had become extremely real. All the what-ifs started to roll around in my head, and the biggest of all—outside of what if Dottie wins, how Mary Elizabeth will act and vice versa—what if I didn’t get those flowers and Mary Elizabeth wins? She’d be devastated because she wasn’t a lily fan. On the other hand, if Dottie wins, and I got Mary Elizabeth roses instead of lilies… oh dear.

“Have you ever watched the royal family? I mean, get with the program, May-bell-ine.” Dottie tsked on her way out.

Saturday nights were generally pretty quiet. Most of the time, the campers were off doing last-minute things until it was time to leave for either their next adventure or for home in the morning. Our check-in and checkout days were Sunday late afternoon, so it only gave me and my employees— Dottie and Henry, plus Betts who cleaned for me—to get all the lots and bungalows ready for the incoming guests that would check in around four p.m. Some did book early check-ins, and that was fine, but today I was sure all the campground guests were at the festival, making it a quiet afternoon.

The day was too pretty to be stuck inside of the campground office. I grabbed my phone and earbuds on my way out and put on the local radio station, which was run by the National Parks Department.

A quick stroll around the campground while bebopping to some jams felt so good with the warm sun on my face. I loved all seasons in Kentucky, but today summer was my favorite.

Ask me again in the fall, and I’d say it was my favorite.

I loved living here, deep in the woods. The rough, cracked ridges of the tree barks that made the distinct line between the forest and the campground was a beautiful sight on its own. I walked behind the campers to take a good look at the bright-green hanging moss, only to walk right into a spiderweb.

“Pft. Pft.” I dragged my hand across my cheek to get the invisible threads off. I even stopped to make sure there weren’t any spiders on my chest or arms.

We are interrupting the forty-five minutes of uninterrupted music to bring you a new alert.

Local man Jason Dresser was found dead this afternoon in what Sheriff Al Hemmer is calling a homicide. “At this time, we can say Mr. Dresser did succumb to his injuries he sustained from an apparent robbery at his home. There was a 9-1-1 call placed from Mr. Dresser, and we don’t have any details on what the call said or consisted of. We are not ruling out any suspects at this time but asking anyone with information that could lead to an arrest to come forward. Anonymous tips are welcome as well. I don’t have anything to add at this time, but will keep you updated as new information becomes available.”

Jason Dresser was arrested last year after he’d gone hunting and accidentally killed twenty-six year old Monica Patillo. He is out on bail until his trial which is to start next week.

Immediately, my shoulders slumped.

Carrie Patillo’s clenched teeth and seething tone were tattooed on my brain.

“I will kill you.”

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