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Blossoms, BBQ, & Blackmail

Book 20 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series

The last thing Normal needs is Dottie Swagger or Mary Elizabeth Moberly as the Ms. Blossom Festival Queen.

I thought I had my hands full when Dottie Swaggert and Mary Elizabeth Moberly entered the Ms. Blossom Queen Beauty Pageant for seniors but when I witnessed a fight at the festival between Carrie Patillo and Jason Dresser, Carrie’s daughter’s accused killer, I knew Jason was wrongfully accused for the murder and set up.
How was I going to prove it before the trial started?

Easy. Gather the Laundry Club Ladies and use our unique sleuthing skills. Right?

Wrong!

After we uncovered some evidence of blackmail and head on over to tell Jason what we found out. . .we found out something alright. The true killer got to Jason first.

If that wasn’t enough to deal with, Bobby Ray Bond found his real mama. With her impending arrival, we Laundry Club Ladies have our hands full with Blossoms, BBQ, & Blackmail.

Welcome to Normal where NOTHING is normal!

Blossoms, BBQ, & Blackmail

Excerpt

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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.

end of excerpt

Blossoms, BBQ, & Blackmail

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Jul 29, 2021

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