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TANGLED UP IN TINSEL

Book 6 in the Kenni Lowry Mystery Series

Don’t get your tinsel in a tangle…It’s Christmastime in Cottonwood, Kentucky, and Sheriff Kenni Lowry is determined to keep the peace. Vivian Lowry, Kenni’s Mama, is having a Christmas-size hissy fit because Kenni plans to spend Christmas in Chicago with her Deputy Sheriff-turned-boyfriend Finn Vincent and his family.

Plus, the snowstorm of the century is headed right toward Cottonwood, leaving the residents in a frantic frenzy and potentially derailing Kenni’s Christmas plans with Finn.

If that’s not enough to dampen the Christmas spirit, the ghost of Kenni’s grandfather—the ex-sheriff—makes an appearance, and that means only one thing: there’s been a Christmas murder, and there’s a tinsel-wrapped victim at the center of it.

Relying on her Poppa more than ever, Kenni uses him as the Ghost of Christmas Past to help solve the murder, but will it be in time for her to save Christmas in Cottonwood and hop on her plane to meet Finn’s family?

TANGLED UP IN TINSEL

Book 6 in the Kenni Lowry Mystery Series

TANGLED UP IN TINSEL

Excerpt

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Chapter One

“Welcome to the annual Hunt club Christmas Cantata.” The sound of a scratching record rose about the sounds of whistle calls and festive cheers from with inside of the Hunt Club’s annual Christmas Cantata. “I’m DJ Nelly 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 barely was 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 the 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 of the festive occasion. The perfect set of white teeth underneath his mesmerizing smile sent my heart into a tailspin. His black hair and brown eyes were another feature that made my insides flip-flop. “I’m looking forward to my first Cottonwood Christmas Cantata,” he said as his eyes captured mine.

There was a vague sense of peace between us and my lids slipped down over my eyes so I could feel the joy.

“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 looked 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. And 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. There were more people in the community I didn’t know then there was. As the sheriff of Cottonwood, I wanted to know everyone who lived here.

“I thought those two were forbidden?” 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 then, 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 look of disgust on their faces, 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.

“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 but get along.”

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. I could only control what was on their property. And when Manuel stepped foot outside of his job, which was working for Sean Graves in his towing business, Sean’d called me because he said Manuel was trespassing when he was really invited over by Leighann.

“Why don’t they like him again?” Finn asked.

We watched as the love birds got from their seats and moseyed up to the refreshment table.

Manuel took a  couple of plastic glass 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 was 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, hand 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 leaned 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. A little more on the observant side was a nice way of saying southern gossip.

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 headed 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 her barging 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 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 eye 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 then 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 lip 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 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 with 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.” My 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 the 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 a tearful voice 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. Hallejuiah!” 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 nursing home and never come see me.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll come see you once a year.” I teased, though the scowl on her face didn’t appear that I’d entertained her. “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 they typical southern mother/daughter relationship. It was a love/hate 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 ewe 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 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 slide 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 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 once 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 ewe some more 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 gestures 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. One 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 didn’t stop at any expense to get it. It was all part of our southern up brining. 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 and 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 that was dangling in front of them when they couldn’t have it.

“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, aging her on every time.

“My pleasure.” Finn kissed the top of her 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 seems she’s 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 another girl 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, her long brown hair swung like a swing before water falling down her back.

“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 down 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 and from what I just heard from the weather alert I just got on my phone from the station, a big winter storm is going to be moving in. 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 was 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 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.

 

 

Chapter Two

“Gone away is the blue bird, here to stay is the new bird. We sing a love song as we go along. Walking in a winter wonderland.” I couldn’t stop my finger from tapping on the stirring wheel of my old Wagoneer as it rattled down Free Row what I lovingly called Broadway Street, where I lived.

Free Row was the nickname mainly because the residents that lived on free row lived off the commodity cheese and other perks the government gives them.

“Walking in a winter wonderland,” I sang along to the catchy tune as I began my morning route around Cottonwood to make sure everyone and everything was alright with the world. At least in our little part of the world.

The Wagoneer came to a halt at the stop sign at the intersection of Broadway and Main Street.

“Can you believe it, Duke?” I rubbed down my old hound dog and gently nudged his back end towards the seat so I could see if any cars were coming down Main Street before I turned left. “Just a few more days until we go to Chicago.”

Duke wagged his tail and stuck his head out the window into the bitter cold winter jet stream that’d decided to blanket the entire state. His droopy brown eyes had a little sparkle in them as his long tan ears flapped into the wind.

“Well, until I go to Chicago,” I whispered because I didn’t want him to hear me since he was going to have to stay with Joelle Fischer, my best friend.

Though he wouldn’t mind since she owned a food truck and he loved riding with her. Free food, who wouldn’t?

“Good morning, Cottonwood. Remember last night at the Hunt Club’s annual Christmas dance where I announced the weather alert? Or if you weren’t there, which you should’ve been, because you missed a really good tim,” DJ Nelly chimed in after the song in with her perky voice. “Well, batten down the hatches, get those winter gloves, hats and snow boots out because  I’m coming at y’all with a wee-bit of advice since blizzard is coming. If y’all are anywhere near the Dixon’s Food Town, I suggest you stop on in and get a loaf of bread and some milk. From what I hear, they’ve got a new shipment overnight and it won’t last long. Y’all, we ain’t gonna escape this winter blizzard heading straight for us in a few days. Stock up now and don’t wait.”

“Seriously?” I shook my head and pulled the Jeep out on Main Street and headed north towards downtown. “Every year they say the big blizzard is coming and we get a dusting of snow. A dusting, just like powdered sugar that Ben’s Diner puts on the waffles.” My mouth started to water. “Man, waffles sound good about right now,” I talked to Duke like he was going to answer me. “Ain’t that right, Duke?”

Rowl, rowl. His feet danced on the seat as he adjusted himself in the seat to avoid smacking into the dashboard when I turned the wheel.

“And while you’re there, be sure to grab a shovel and some salt.  Excuse me for yawning, y’all kept me out a little too late last night. You’re listening to WCKK for all your Christmas tunes.” DJ Nelly clicked off and so did I.

“If she thinks that a little snow is going to stop me from going to Chicago and spend Christmas with Finn and his family, she’s got another thing coming and I don’t want to listen.” I gripped the wheel and looked up. “So, if you can hear me,” I should’ve summoned the big guy in the sky, but I didn’t. I summoned the other big guy in the sky that I personally knew and that had come to visit me a time or two in the afterlife, Elmer Sims, my Poppa. “Not that I want you to come because of a murder, but I’d like to go meet Finn’s family. So why not grant me this one wish and stop any snow coming.” I looked at Duke. “That should do it.”

I was confident that there wasn’t going to be any snow. There couldn’t. Not after all the planning Finn and I had done to go to great lengths to make it happen over the past few months. Being sheriff of Cottonwood and Finley Vincent being my only deputy, made it hard for both of us to take a day off, much less a few days off.

The Wagoneer headed up Main Street and I couldn’t help but slow down to look at the carriage lights that dotted each side of the street. The Beautification committee had not only hung beautiful and full poinsettias next to the hung Christmas in Cottonwood banners from the rods, they strung white twinkling lights up the poles. It was strange not to imagine myself not waking up on Christmas morning, heading down to Ben’s Diner and serving food to the homeless or taking food to the shelter.

The stop light turned yellow, slowing me down to a stop at the intersection of Chestnut Street and Main Street. To the left of me was Cowboy’s Catfish, where the city rented the back portion of the restaurant for the sheriff’s department. It wasn’t a conventional copshop, but nothing in our small town was conventional. White’s Jewelry was next to Cowboy’s, next to that was Tattered Cover Books and Inn, the only place to stay downtown. Beyond that was Ben’s Diner. All of their display windows were decorated with Christmas decorations and lights. The Tattered Cover had green wreaths with big red bows on each window of the three-story brick building.

A smile grew on my face when I imagined what if there was a big snow storm. Downton would look amazing and much like a winter wonderland you’d see in a fancy winter painting of a quaint small town.

Across the street there was Ruby’s Antiques, that brought visitors from all over the state for Ruby Smith’s delicious treasures. Kim’s Buffet, a local family owned Chinese restaurant, was next to Ruby’s. Along with the radio station where DJ Nelly was all to happy giving the news of the upcoming weather I refused to even speak of.

I forced the imagine of the weather report in the back of my head. All that summoning the Universe and all that thoughts become things way of thinking, not that I believed in all that, but for good measure. I’d heard Chicago was amazing this time of the year. Finn had mentioned something about going to see the Nutcraker and I really wanted to go.

Finn was from Chicago and had been a deputy with the Kentucky State Reserve. He’d worked a homicide with me here in Cottonwood and we just so happened to have an opening for a deputy. A few short months later, we were working side by side and we couldn’t deny the chemistry between us much longer, so we started dating. In the spring, he’d asked me to go to Chicago for Christmas to meet his family, it was a no brainer. Now that it was a few days away, no way was an over-exaggerated weather forecast or excited DJ on the radio was going to stop our trip.

It’d taken a few steps, along with a couple of headaches and campaign promises, to get City Council to approve the request for us to leave and for the State Reserve to send us an officer to fill in for us since it was Christmas. Now. . .getting my Mama to accept me not being here was an act of congress that still hasn’t gotten full approval.

A big sigh escaped me, and I gripped the wheel a little tighter.

The warm glow of the carriage lights caught the Christmas wreaths in an angelic way. All the quaint shops were closed this early in the morning, but not Ben’s Diner. When I drove by, I could see the regulars were already lined up like soldiers bellied up to the counter. Ben’s baseball cap was turned around backwards like he’d always wore it. His mouth was already flapping while he went down the counter filling up all of the coffee mugs.

“I sure would like a cup of his coffee,” I said to Duke and picked up my thermos I’d filled up with my coffee from home.

The old bean bag coffee holder slid off the floorboard hump when I got my coffee. I should’ve probably invested in a real cup holder for the old Wagoneer, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This old Jeep was my Poppa’s and many memories of me playing with the bean bag coffee holder was fond one for me.

“It’s not going to snow,” I repeated to myself before I turned right into the Pump and Munch on the corner of East Oak and Main Street.

The Pump and Munch was the only gas station in downtown Cottonwood. There was a small market attached to garage with two big steel doors and small windows across the top. Luke Jones was already hunkered under the hood of a car and looked up when my tires ran over the tube that dinged the bell inside.

He gave a slight wave to let me know he’d seen me and I waved back. Luke believed in the old way of things and coming out to pump the gas himself.

When I saw him coming out the door, I pulled down my visor and took out the gas card that belonged to the sheriff’s department.

“Mornin’, Sheriff.” Luke wiped his hands down the blue cover-alls he was wearing, which didn’t make any sense because it appeared they were just as dirty as his hands. “You fillin’ up to get the Jeep ready for the storm of the century?” he asked as we both saw his breath.

“Storm of the century?” I asked and pushed Duke away from my lap. He couldn’t contain himself to his side of the front seat when my window was rolled down. “Just a little dusting.”

Luke’s arm plunged inside of the window as he reached across me to pat Duke. A stream of bitter air came with it.

“That’s what all them meteorologist are calling it. Saying it’s just like the blizzard of 1977.” His chin lifted up and then down. “The way I figure it, I’m gonna be busy. People gonna come in here today to get gas for all their cars and generators.” He pointed over to the side of his garage. “I’ve got plenty of gas cans on hand to sell. You need one?”

“Mark my word,” I smiled and shook my head, “There’s not going to be a storm of the century. Maybe a few flakes here and there, but they’re always wrong.”

“The Farmer’s Almanac said so too.” Luke’s brows furrowed. He put his hands together and blew in them before he briskly rubbed them together. “Don’t you got one?”

“Of course, I do.” I took in a deep breath. “Doesn’t everyone in Cottonwood?” I questioned under my breath.

Everyone in my small southern town lived and died by the Farmer’s Almanac. If you didn’t get your seeds or crops planted by the time the black ink on the pages said, you’re crops weren’t going to grow. But who was I to question it. I wasn’t a farmer. Just a girl in love that wasn’t going to let a few snowflakes keep her from meeting what could potentially be my future in-laws.

Just the thought of it made my stomach flip-flop and heart flutter.

“Filler’ up?” He asked.

“Please,” I said and rubbed my hands together. “And not because of the storm. I just need gas.”

There was no denying that the temps were prime for a blizzard, but the sun was out and there was no way Poppa was going to let this happen. I looked up to the sky and said a little pray in my head.

“You’re all set.” He tapped the window sill. “What night are you and the gals coming by for White Christmas this week.”

Luke Jones and his wife, Vita, also owned the only community movie theater in Cottonwood. It was run in the basement of their house. They had popcorn, sweet treats, and drinks to purchase. He had a big pull-down screen that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. On the days that it didn’t want to pull down, he used a sheet screen that was actually three king sheets that Vita sewed together.  Every year he ran the old movie, White Christmas, for three or four nights during the Christmas season. My best friends, Jolee Fischer and Tibbie Bell,  and I had a yearly habit of making a girls night out during Christmas that included our annual viewing of White Christmas at Luke’s.

“Actually, I won’t be coming. Finn invited me to Chicago to meet his family during the days you’re showing the movie.” The smile on my face got so big, I blushed. “We are going up a few days before Christmas so I’m going to miss all the fun festivities at the fairgrounds and everything.” I planted a frown on my face for effect.

“Kenni,” Luke gasped, his eyes grew big. “I knew you were going out of town, but this’ll be the first time that I can remember where you weren’t in front row with a big popcorn sprinkled with chocolate and big coke.”

“I know.” I shrugged. “I’ll have to start a new tradition with a New Year’s movie.”

“Who’s going to run our town?” The line between his brows deepened.

“The state reserve is sending someone to run the joint. I don’t anticipate anything going wrong,” I said. “He’ll be in the office today. So be nice if you see a stranger meandering around our parts.”

It wasn’t unusual for the town folk to give the riot act to any stranger in town that appeared to be gawking or a little too nosy. Gossip spread around our small town like wild fire and if I could make the temporary deputy comfortable before he got here, I was going to try. The last thing I needed when I was in Chicago was to get a call from Betty saying the people ran him out of town.

“What about the big blizzard? What if someone is trapped? Needs rescuing?” He asked.

It took everything in my power not to roll my eyes.

“Luke, mark my words, there’s not going to be a big blizzard. They haven’t gotten the weather right in years. Everything is going to be fine. I promise,” I assured him, then crossed my heart and jerked the gear shift into drive. “Duke and I are off to do the rounds.”

“Tell everyone you know to grab some milk, just in case. I’ve stocked up if Dixon’s is out.” He tapped the side of my Jeep before I took off.

There was no denying that it was going to be strange not being in Cottonwood during Christmas. I’d never not been here during Christmas. Even when I went off the college and joined the police academy, I came home every year. Change was good. At least that’s what I was telling myself.

“Kenni, Kenni.” Betty Murphy’s voice came across the walkie-talkie loud and clear.

While I held on the steering wheel with one hand, I used the other to turn down the volume on the walkie-talkie strapped to my shoulder. It was the old way of communication, which Finn had tried desperately for us to change, but it worked.

Like my Poppa always said, why try to fix something that’s not broken.

“Go ahead,” I said after I clicked the button on the side and crossed over York Street.

“Jilly Graves needs you to come to their house right away. Leighann didn’t come home last night and it’s not like her to do that.” Betty Murphy was my dispatch operator at the department.

“Not like her to do that,” I said sarcastically and looked over at Duke. “It was totally like her to not come home.”

I reached up and clicked the button on the walkie-talkie.

“How long has Leighann been gone?” I asked, doing my civic duty.

“Since she left the Hunt Club dance last night.” Betty clicked off.

“It’s not even been twelve hours,” I said to Duke. Leighann Graves had been giving her family fits for years by sneaking out. “She’s probably at Manuel’s after they made up from last night.” I remembered how they’d gotten into that little tiff.

Duke’s big brown eyes looked at me. His tongue was sticking out with a drip of slobber while he panted.

“Are you at the department?” I asked Betty when I noticed the hands of the manual old-time clock on the dash said it was still thirty minutes until she was due to the office to start her job as dispatcher.

“Well, Jilly knew I wasn’t in the office yet and so she called me at home. I rushed right on in here so I could get ahold of you.” Betty was talking so fast, she was out of breath. “I knew you were probably off doing your rounds, and I would’ve called Finn, but he started his shift down at the Dixon’s Foodtown ringing the bell for the kettle foundation this morning. You know thing you volunteered him for.”

This was the time of year that I knew if the department didn’t volunteer for anything, it’d come back and bite me in the you-know-what when it was election time. Sheriff was an elected position and it was hell enough trying to get the residents to vote in a female, hard enough now that I was here and under a microscope. Luckily, we’d just gotten through an election and I was safe for another four years.

“Alrighty. I’ll run on over to the Graves’s house, though I don’t classify Leighann as missing and you know that until she’s missing for a couple of days, we don’t usually take report. She’s an adult too.” I figured it was another one of Sean Graves way of trying to keep control of his daughter.

Graves Towing and the Graves’s house was on the north side of town past Lulu’s Boutique. It wasn’t like it took me long to get from the south edge of town to the north edge. Driving under a few stop lights and it was completed. Since I was already heading north on Main Street, it’d be quick.

Sean Graves was a third-generation family owner and had kept up the company. The white clapboard farmhouse on the family farm was surrounded by black Kentucky post fencing. He took pride on how nice and neat he kept the property, as he should be. It was a beautiful farm.

The tow lot was a little more difficult to look as pristine with the lot full of car that he’d repossessed or even took in as a junk and added to his every mounting junk yard behind the chain-link fence that you couldn’t see from the street.

I drove up the driveway and around the back of the big farmhouse where the entrance was to their home. Their business was located behind the house and that’s where you could see the generations of the Graves’s hard work.

Sean and Jilly had lived off the property in a small home in town while Leighann was in  school, but over the past few months, they’d moved back to the farm and focus more on the business. Especially since Leighann had decided not to go to college and continue to work with the family business. At least that’s what the word around town was. By that, I mean gossip.

The Sheriff’s department used Graves’s Towing a lot. We had no other choice. I didn’t mind going out there to ease their minds. After all, they’d hung signs on their fence and voted for me in both elections.

The colored Christmas lights were strung across the gutters of their house. The few bushes on each side of the front door had those nets that were made out of white Christmas lights. They had a blow-up famous cartoon character in their front yard with a beer in his hand and a Santa hat on his head. That didn’t shock me. It was a pretty typical characterization of Sean Graves. One of the good ole boys in Cottonwood.

I just shook my head and put the Jeep in park.

“Come on,” I said to Duke and patted my leg. It wasn’t unusual for him to be with me. My deputy and protector. He’d even received a medal for saving my life once and taking a bullet for me.

Duke jumped out my side and run up to the bushes, leaving his mark on each one. I grabbed my police bag and shut the door. My bag was everything I needed when I went on a call or an investigation. No matter what type of call it was. It was easiest to grab the whole thing than to get the notebook and pencil out.

“I’m guessing by the lack of the sheriff’s light, my Leighann’s disappearance isn’t that important.” Sean Graves stood at the door with bags under his eyes. He must’ve been watching for me.

“If there was someone out on the roads this early, I’d used it, but I was lucky enough the roads were clear.” I wasn’t going to use the siren. I was positive that Leighann had just pulled one of her tricks again. “Which got me here quicker.”

“Get on in here.” He opened the door wide. When I took a step in, I could see Jilly sitting on the couch next to the stocked-up fire in the wood burning stove. There was a kettle on top with steam rolling out from the spout.

“Sheriff, would you like a cup of coffee?” She asked. There was a bit of fear in her that I’d not seen before when Leighann would disappear.

“That’d be great.” I pointed to the chair. “My I?”

“Of course. Sean, go get Kenni a mug out of the cupboard. Can I get something for Duke?” She asked.

“No. He’s fine.” I pointed to the ground for Duke to take his command.

“Go on, Sean.” Jilly shooed him to get me that coffee.

When I sat down, Duke laid down next to my feet. On the opposite side, I sat my bag down and unzipped it, taking out the notepad and paper.

While Jilly made sure I was comfortable, and Sean got my coffee, I wrote down the date, time and purpose of the visit so I could transfer my notes into the computer when I got back into the office.

“I got a call from Betty saying that Leighann is missing.” I took the cup and nodded a thank you. “Why do you think this is different than any other time?” I asked.

“This.” Jilly held up a cell phone. “This is Leighann’s. You and I both know that these kids today don’t put their phones down. Especially her. She’s on this thing twenty-four seven.”

“I was beginning to think it’d attached to her skin she never puts it down.” Sean offered me creamer and I held my hand up declining.

I sat the coffee on the small table next to me and took a vested interest because they did have a point, though I wasn’t thoroughly convinced Leighann was actually missing.

“We all know that the past is a proven history that Leighann has left here before.” I reminded them of all the calls before Leighann was of legal age.

“Yes. But like I said, this is her phone and she never left without it in the past.” Jilly eased herself to sit on the edge of the couch. Her hands clasped and tucked in between her knees.

“Is the phone still in your name? Do you pay the bill?” I asked and both of them nodded.

“Is it possible that she and Manuel got a phone in her name?” I asked again. “Maybe cutting some ties with you guys now that she’s legally able to leave?”

“No. Both of their phones are owned by the company. We’ve accepted that she’s out of high school and an adult. She’s going to keep dating that boy no matter what we say.” Sean seethed. Apparently, no matter what he told me, he’d not accepted their relationship and maybe not at any age.

Jilly leaned over and touched him to calm him down.

“We are open to the fact that she loves him, and we will train him and her to take over our business when we retire,” Jilly said. “Just like your parents did for us.”

“I want better for her.” Sean jerked away from Jilly and stood up. He ran his hand through his hair and paced back and forth. “You and I have a hard-enough time making ends meet. What’s going to happen when we retire. They aren’t as hard working as us.”

“This is the problem.” Jilly’s voice rose and octave. “You don’t give them a chance to even try to grow up.”

“Back to the cell phone.” I had to reel them in. “Have you talked to Manuel this morning? Is she with him?”

“No. I mean yes.” He waved his hand in the air. “She’s not with him. And yes, we’ve talked to him. That’s what worries me.” Jilly said. “Sean and I left the dance last night before they did.”

That I remember.

“Manuel said there was some sort of argument. She and Manuel were leaving. She’d met him at the dance because he was on a call for us to pull in a repo. When they were leaving the dance, she threw the phone at him and jumped in her car. She took off. He said he drove off after her, but she was going so fast that he couldn’t keep up with her.” A look of worry set deep in Jilly’s eyes.

“He hasn’t seen her since?” I asked.

“No. And that’s not like her. You know just as much as we do the trouble we’ve had keeping her away from him even when they did fight. And they’ve had some doozies.” Jilly looked at Sean. “That’s why we tried to discourage them from dating. They have these big blow up fights that are bad now. I can only imagine what would happen if they got married.”

“Has Manuel ever hit Leighann?” I asked only because of what I’d witnessed of his behavior with that other girl last night when he almost hit her before Finn jumped in.

“We don’t know. Leighann would never confess to anything. She says that they love each other so much that they fight.” She scoffed,” Who ever heard alike?”

“Do you believe him when he says he’s not seen her?” I questioned, keeping in mind that their opinion of him was a bit skewed.

“We don’t know what to believe. After she graduated, we sat down with her and told her that we approved of her relationship. She didn’t have to go to college and she could learn the business. She was pleased with that. When she and Manuel started working together every day, side by side, we noticed she’d gotten a little more distance from him. Last year, she’d jump in the cab of the tow truck and go all day long when she was off a day from school. Now we have to beg her to go help him.” Sean’s lips pulled in and snugged up against his teeth. “I’m feel like something is wrong. I don’t know if he had anything to do with it, but I can’t find her. After he showed up here with this phone and said she never came to his house, he got worried and come here to see if she’d come home.”

“We checked her phone. There’s no unusual activity or call or even her text messages are fine.” Jilly sucked in a deep breath.

“Can I take her phone with me?” I asked. They readily handed it over to me. “If we can’t find Leighann, which I’m sure we will, I can subpoena the records of the phone. Last ping. Those types of things.”

“Is there any particular place she goes when she’s upset or angry that you might know about?” I questioned because for some strange reason, Leighann had been trying her darndest to get out from under her parent’s foothold.

“She and Manuel liked to go down to the river over at Chimney Rock, but I drove over there this morning after Manuel had come by. Granted, it was dark out, but I didn’t see her car.” Sean frowned. “I asked Manuel about Chimney Rock and he said that he didn’t have plans to go there with her either.”

“I’ll go speak to Manuel. I also witnessed that argument last night. I even talked to them. There were a few other kids standing around. I’ll go see the other kids involved. In the meantime,” I put my note pad and Leighann’s phone back in my bag. I pushed myself up to stand. Duke jumped up and trotted over to their door. “If you do hear from her, please call my cell immediately.”

I took a business card with my cell phone printed on it and handed it to Sean.

“Thank you, Kenni.” Sean walked me to the door. “If anyone can talk to Manuel and figure out what he might be hiding, it’s you.”

“I’ll be in touch.” I nodded and patted my leg for Duke to follow.

“You’ve got my cell number, right?” He questioned as I walked towards my Jeep.

“I sure do.” I opened the door and Duke jumped in.

“Good. That big winter storm is coming, and I imagine I’ll be out in it pulling out idiots who get out in that stuff. Do you have an emergency kit in your Jeep?” He asked and walked up to the driver’s door.

“I’ve got what I need,” I assured him.

“Everyone needs an emergency kit in their car at all time. I made sure Jilly has one and Leighann has one in their car. So if Leighann’s in some sort of emergency right now,” his voice cracked, “I know she’s got food, water and first aid kit.” He sniff. “I even got her a kit from Lulu’s boutique with her initials on it.” He let out a little laugh. “Leighann is so girly. She loves all that initial stuff.”

“I’m sure we’ll find her,” I assured him. My words met his blank face.

“Nonetheless, be careful in the storm.” He slammed the door.

“There’s not going to be a winter storm,” I confidently yelled back to their front door.

 

Chapter Three

If I was going to drive out the Liberty house, I figured I was going to need to get a fresh, hot coffee because just like Manuel, his mother wasn’t one to mess with. Juanita Liberty let people know that Manuel was to go to college on a football scholarship. She didn’t hold back when Manuel had told them he wasn’t going to go to college, turning down the scholarship and stayed in Cottonwood. It was a dispatch call that I dreaded and could still feel that sick gut feeling.

The call had actually come from Jonathan, Manuel’s brother. Juanita had gotten Manuel in a choke hold, demanding she wasn’t going to let go until he signed the scholarship, but Manuel insisted he wasn’t going. It took a while for me to pry her hands from around the poor kid, but it did end peacefully.

Heading south, on my way back into town, I took a right next to Lulu’s Boutique. Duke danced back and forth between the front seat and back seat of the Wagoneer in delight.

The boutique was a really old small yellow clapboard house that Lulu McClain had turned into a cozy, knick-knack shop that sold local arts, candles, some clothing items and accessories for the home. In the back she’d host different arts and crafts for the various groups, like knitting, pottery, crocheting, and whatever else the Auxilary Women could find to fill their days and nights.

It wasn’t the boutique that Duke was so excited to see, it was Jolee Fischer’s food truck, On the Run. Jolee pulled the truck up to the curb next to Lulu’s every morning so she could caffeinate all the Cottonwood people who got up early. The food she cooked and served was straight homecookin’ that made our mouths water. Duke was a recipient of some of her treats and his tail nearly knocked me over as he jumped out of the Jeep after I opened the door. This was why I knew he’d be just fine while I was gone to Chicago.

It was too cold to eat outside, and Jolee knew when she opened the food truck that everyone needed a place to commune if they wanted to. Lulu and Jolee had made an agreement that Lulu would open the craft room in the back of the boutique for people to eat and enjoy. Cottonwood was about community and be together, with a dash of gossip to spice it all up.

“Kenni, really?” Lulu came out of nowhere and wiped her hand across the front pocket of my brown sheriff’s jacket. “You could use a little monogram on this to make it pop a little. Or a little more feminine.”

She pulled away and her fingernails racked the edge of her short, twiggy styled black hair. There was some jiggling going on under the faux fur coat she had snuggled around her. No doubt the jiggling was the armful of bangles she had from her wrist to her elbow.

“Lulu, it’s monogramed with the sheriff’s symbol.” My eyes lowered, “Have you been talking to mama?” I asked.

“Have I?” She squealed with delight. “I just have to show you that fur coat she’s going to look fabulous in when she’s sitting on the back of a fancy car in a parade.”

“Lulu, you aren’t feeding Mama a line of bullarky about this silly notion of her wanting to run for Snow Queen, are you?” I gave her a sideways look.

“Well, she mentioned something about you going to Chicago and she’s got to have something to fill up her broken heart. But I did tell her that you’d be a beautiful bride. If you insist on going, we would like you to have something come out of it. After all,” She cozied up to me, “a fall wedding in Cottonwood is beautiful.” Her nails dug into me.

“You and my Mama can get any notion of me getting engaged while I’m in Chicago out of your head.” Though the image of me being Finn’s bride might’ve popped in my head a time or two, it wasn’t something I figured on right now.

Come on? What girl didn’t start dreaming of her wedding at age three?

Lulu let out a long sigh.

“Fancy nails you got there.” I pulled her hand away from my arm and noticed the red and gold tips with a smidgen of glitter on them. “Shimmery.”

“Oh honey, I’m one of Tina Bower’s Guinea pigs down at Tiny Tina’s.” She curled her nose. “All that shines makes my heart sing.”

“It’s cold. I’m going to grab a coffee.” I patted her on the back. “You’re dressed for Antarctica.”

“I’m getting out all my furs due to the storm of the century coming.” She shimmed proudly and ran her hand down the front of her coat with a twinkle in her eye. “Not just your Mama wants one of my fine furs.”

“Don’t tell me that you’re believing this weather forecasts?” I questioned because Lulu McClain was one that didn’t let anyone pull the wool over her eyes. “Of all people in this town, I didn’t figure you’d fall for it.”

“Honey,” her southern accent made her response so much more charming, “I’ll give it to you that the weather people on the television is probably about ninety-nine percent wrong, but I do believe with the way the clouds are shifting and the wind is breezing, they might’ve gotten that one percent right this time.” She shivered and wiggled her shoulders. “Can’t you feel it?”

“Nope. Not one bit.” I shrugged and wasn’t about to give into the fact that she had her faith in the one percent.

“Put your nose in the air and smell it.” She jutted her chin out and up, taking the biggest inhale. “Agggghhhhhh,” she released it. “I can smell it and I can see it.” She dragged her hands out in front of her. “The freshly fallen snow that blankets Cottonwood in all its sparkling splendor. The real thick snow that the kiddos can pack into the tallest snowmen you’ve ever seen.” She elbowed me. “We haven’t had a snow like that since you were a youngin’.”

“I remember.” It wasn’t a fond memory either. “Mama decided she needed to go to Dixon’s Foodtown when daddy told her not to. She threw me in the back of the family station wagon and backed out of the driveway and before she even got going the wagon slide back and hit a fire hydrant.”

Lulu’s brows furrowed.

“That’s when Graves’s Tow company came and got us out. I can hear daddy now,” I continued in my best dad voice, “Viv, I told you not to go out in this stuff, but you had to be nosy. Mama said, no I wanted to get bread. Dad said back to her that she was wanting to make sure she wasn’t missing out on any gossip in the baking aisle. Then they fought over the big bill from Graves’s towing. Right here at Christmas time, daddy fused.” I shook my head. “I’m hoping the weather is still ninety-nine percent wrong.”

“We’ll see,” Lulu ho-hummed and gave me a wink as she walked away.

The line to the front of On the Run food truck was about five people deep. Each one greeted me with the typical nod and “mornin’ sheriff”. Of course, I was kind and asked how they were doing. Before I knew it, I’d gotten caught up on their lives and I made sure to ask them if they’d seen Leighann Graves. No one had and before you knew it, I was up to the front of the line where Jolee had my coffee poured and ready to go.

“You haven’t seen Leighann Graves around have you?” I asked.

Not that I’d expected Jolee to say yes or even that Leighann had stopped by the food truck. No stone unturned was the motto I liked to live by and you just never know.

“I haven’t. I don’t even remember her ever coming here, but not that she wouldn’t today. It’s been a weird morning.” Jolee leaned over and out the window of the food truck. She turned her head right and left. “None of my regulars are here. I swear it’s this whole snow thing. Damn storm of the century.”

“There’s not going to be a storm.” I looked at her up under my brows. “You’re my best friend. You can at least agree with me.”

“Unn-hun, no way.” She shook her head. “You’re trying to bail out on our annual White Christmas girl’s night. I don’t want you leaving me for Christmas. Who cares about you leaving your Mama behind. It’s me you’re leaving behind.”

“Whatever. You’ve got Ben,” I said.

She wasn’t fooling me any, though she’s never bailed on a girlfriend night since she started dating Ben Harrison.

“Anyways, if you see Leighann let me know. She didn’t come home last night after she got into that fight with Manuel at the dance. She’ll turn up.” I was sure of it.

“I’m sure she will.” Jolee’s eyes moved past me and onto the next customer.

“Let’s go, Duke,” I called after my trusty sidekick.

There was just something about going to see someone early in the morning. It always felt like an intrusion. Was I waking them up? Catching them at a bad time? Were they going to work? Still in their pjs?”

As the sheriff, I had to put those feelings and silly notions aside and rely on intuition when I got there. I’d have Duke and my other trusty sidekick, my pistol.

The Liberty’s lived on the outskirts of south side of town. I had to take interstate sixty-eight and take a left on Keene Road. Not that Keene was a bad area to live in, it was just a small community that stuck together. They were a tight-knit group of neighbors. The houses needed a lot of work, but they didn’t care. Most days you’d drive through Keene and everyone would be outside talking to the neighbors.

The Liberty’s home was a small brick home with a poured concrete front porch slab. The Christmas lights hung around the door were barren and missing a couple of twinkles every couple of bulbs. The doorbell hung out from the brick and barely hung on by the wires that attached it. I knocked a good hard times since getting electrocuted wasn’t in my Christmas list.

“What you want?” Juanita Liberty stood at the door. Her massive head of black hair was piled up on the top of her head and falling down on the sides. There were bags underneath her eyes.

“Sheriff,” Manual pushed past his Mama and out the front door. He was tugging on his Cottonwood high school sweat shirt. “Did you go look for Leighann?”

“Leighann?” Juanita’s nose turned up like she smelled a fart. “What’s she done now? Not that getting you to quit football and stay in this god-forsaken town your whole life after I uprooted our family to give you a better life.”

“Don’t mind her.” Manual pulled the door shut behind him with Juanita still fussing about how much they dislike Leighann.

This was the exact reason I didn’t want to come here this morning, but I was elected to do a job.

“I’m guessing you haven’t seen her?” I asked. By the looks of him, he’d been up all night.

“No. And it’s unlike her when we have a fight for her not to come running back or at least give me more piece of her mind until we make up.” He blinked his big brown eyes. His lips turned down. “I love her, sheriff, I do.”

“I’m not sure what your fight was about last night, but publicly fighting or fighting at all wasn’t the brightest idea.” It was my opportunity to mother him a smidgen since it appeared his mother hadn’t. “What was the fight about?” I asked.

“Just stuff. Mean girl stuff.” He shrugged.

“Your Mama really doesn’t like Leighann?” I asked and nodded towards the only front window where Juanita was watching us and yammering on a mile a minute about what I could guess was still Leighann.

“She’s mad that I’ve decided to stay here in Cottonwood and not go play college football, but that’s not Leighann’s fault. Leighann told me to go. Encouraged me. But I just don’t want to. Even her parents have finally gotten to the point where they can tolerate me.” He gave a weak smile. “Now this,” he swallowed hard and choked back the lump that seemed to have gotten in his throat.

“Do you have any idea where she might’ve gone?” I give suggestions only to get head shakes. “Friends? Old flame? Family member?”

“None of those that I know of. I went through her phone before I gave it to her parents to see if she got any calls, but she didn’t. No messages. Me and her are inseparable.” He let out a long sigh.

“What about Chimney Rock?” I asked wondering if she were sitting down there right now with her heat on, Christmas tunes cranked and just waiting them out for a few hours.

“No. We always made plans to go down there, but not during the winter and certainly not with this big blizzard coming.” His words made me glare at him.

There’s not going to be a blizzard, were the words that formed a bitter taste in my mouth, but instead of saying them out loud, I said, “Sean did say that she’d stopped going on tow runs with you.” Not that I suspected he knew where she was, but it would give an indication if she was mad and staying away for a little. “And it’s not unlike her to not to come home.”

“When she didn’t come home, she was with me.” He was getting fidgety. “We’d tell them if she wasn’t coming home so they wouldn’t worry, even though we didn’t have to anymore since she is an adult.”

“There wasn’t a place that the two of you went that you’re not remembering?” I asked.

“No. No. No.” He looked down and shuffled his feet. “As for work, just recently she started to say that it wasn’t good for us to work together all the time. I didn’t know what that meant. She said something about how she didn’t want us to be like her parents. I didn’t know what that meant either. I figured her parents got in a fight and her mom said something about putting up with Sean all her life, like she always throws up in his face and Leighann would open up when she was ready to.” He paused, “Maybe she’s getting sick of me,” his voice cracked.

“If you remember anything or any place she might’ve gone, please call me. Or stop by the station.” I suggested.

He clearly needed someone to lean on, but I wasn’t a therapist. I barely got my own relationship going a year or so ago, much less help out anyone else.

“You better careful out there, Sheriff,” he said. “The news just said that storm of the century is headed right towards us.”

“I’ll be fine,” I smiled but silently cursed the weather person, “I can guarantee that storm will shift right before it’s due to hit and we won’t see nary a flake.”

“Huh.” Manuel scratched his head. “You’re the authority, I guess you should know.”

“Let me know if you hear from Leighann.” I tugged the Wagoneer door open a little harder than normal. The last time I had to do that was when my Poppa had come to get me during that snow storm Lulu had mentioned earlier.

Poppa told me to tug because the chill lingering in the air made the old Wagoneer door stick a little. He also told me that’s how he knew the storm was coming.

“Good boy,” I ran my hand down Duke because he stayed on his side of the Jeep when I got in and didn’t try to jump out.

I looked up to the sky. My jaw tensed.

“Okay,” I said my prayer out loud, “Poppa, if you can hear me, right now is the time.” Most times, I’d summons him when I was trying to solve a murder and he’d conveniently disappear. This time I needed that storm to shift. “Blow on that storm. Don’t let that storm hit here.”

Duke leaned over and gave me a big lick across my cheek, bringing me back to my senses.

“You’re right.” I laughed. “I’m acting nuts. There’s not storm coming,” I assured myself.

Only if I believed myself.

end of excerpt

TANGLED UP IN TINSEL

is available in the following formats:

Henerey Press

Sep 25, 2018

ISBN-13: 978-1635113969

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