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Valleys, Vehicles, & Victims

Book 9 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series

Welcome to Normal, Kentucky where nothing is normal!

The Daniel Boone National Forest is gorgeous in the fall. The leaves have painted the sides of the mountains with yellow, oranges, reds and browns you won’t see anywhere else. That’s why it’s such a popular destination for weddings!

When a wedding party show up at Happy Trails Campground, Mae West is thrilled. She’s all things girly and excited to assist the bride in all things southern, which is what the bride is hankering for.

Mae recognizes the parents of the bride when they arrive. They are from her past. The past she’s been desperately trying to escape…especially since it was the time she was married to Paul West. This just isn’t any couple, it’s the owners of the famous Moonbucks Coffee Company.

Determined to get the happy couple married off and on their way, hoping to see some of her past drive off forever, Mae volunteers herself and the Laundry Club ladies to become the wedding coordinators.

The wedding is set to take place in the beautiful wedding barn at the Old Train Station Motel, only Gert Hobson, the owner of Trails Coffee Shop and providing the coffee for the happy couple, has decided there’s no way she’s going to help out with Tom Moon’s daughter’s wedding since she claims how years ago Tom Moon STOLE her coffee blend recipe known today as the special Moonbucks blend.

A public fight between Gert and Tom leaves Gert a prime suspect after a member of the wedding party is found dead at the wedding venue. There might not be a happily ever after for the bride to be or Gert Hobson if Mae West and the Laundry Club ladies don’t solve the murder before the wedding party’s RV rolls out of town.

Valleys, Vehicles, & Victims

Excerpt

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Chapter One

Fall in Kentucky was probably my favorite season. The fall foliage created a cozy picture that no artist could ever capture on film or in a painting. The brilliant red hues of the red maples stood proud and tall next to the spectacular yellow and oranges leaves of the sugar maples. But the sweetgum trees that lined the exterior of the Happy Trails Campground were definitely among my favorites.

The sweetgum was a showoff, with its rich, wine-colored yellows, oranges, reds, and purples creating the perfect autumn atmosphere for all my guests at Happy Trails Campground.

“They are going to love the bungalows.” I sighed and brought the cup of steaming coffee to my lips. The communal campfire roared and warmed me from the early morning chill, which would soon burn up in the brilliant sunny day forecasted for Normal, Kentucky, our little slice of heaven located deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

“They are going to be partying up more than enjoying the scenery.” Dottie Swaggert was always the cynical one of my little group of friends.

She sat in the chair next to me. Her coffee was getting cold, but the cigarette dangling from the corner of her lip was lit up.

“Bridal parties have one thing in mind,” Dottie said through the smoke. With her hands, she removed the pink sponge curlers from her hair.

I watched in amazement. I could never figure out how she could smoke and do her hair all at the same time. She put the curls in a drawstring bag nestled in her lap.

“Getting drunk,” she finished and then ran her hands through her short red hair. The finished product was a loose strand around her head, her usual look.

“Maybe not.” I shrugged and took the last drink from my mug.

“Fill ’er up?” Henry Bryan held up the stainless-steel coffee pot that had been hanging over the campfire.

“Yes.” I held my cup out to Henry and watched as my handyman of Happy Trails carefully filled up my mug. “Thank you,” I said to him and met with his signature wide smile that made his already big nose spread across his face, exposing his two front teeth.

“You’re welcome, Mayyyybelleeen.” He giggled when he said my name like my family did, which sometimes drove me crazy.

Mae was how I preferred people to refer to me. Mae West was my name, and I was nothing like the actress. I just so happened I was married to Paul West. Yes. The Paul West who had been convicted for a Ponzi scheme, bankrupting celebrities and nearly half of America. His criminal ways weren’t limited to just the rich and famous. He also took money from the citizens of Normal—and me. My lifestyle dramatically changed when all my assets were seized. All but this campground, which wasn’t much of a campground when I showed up, and a beat-up campervan, which I fixed up and currently lived in.

Fast forward to today. Paul West was murdered and not by my hands, though I did fantasize about it; the Happy Trails Campground was a thriving part of the Daniel Boone National Forest; and we were about to have one of the biggest weekends we’d ever hosted.

Honk, honk!

The first few honks led to a long honk that didn’t stop until the huge RV stopped right in front of the office and a pile of girls fell out.

“I figure that’s the bride?” Dottie’s right brow cocked when the girl in the white veil was the last to get out of the camper. “Or the sash.”

The woman waved as if she were the Queen of England as she walked out of the RV. Her blonde hair hung perfectly straight and was cut at the perfect angle. She had the kind of cut you’d get at a very fancy salon, not like Cute-icles in town. I should know. I used to go only to those upscale salons, and I couldn’t help but gaze at the bride’s hair. It glistened in the early afternoon sun.

“What gave it away? The veil or sash that has ‘bride’ spelled out in glitter?” I joked and stood up to go greet them. “Come on,” I told Dottie. She was the manager, and I needed her to come help wrangle the rowdy bunch. “If this weekend goes well, we just might have more bridal parties.”

“Oh goody,” she said with a flat voice. Her sarcasm didn’t go unnoticed. “Giggling and squealing is exactly why I decided to live deep in the woods.”

“I’ll go and add some extra wood to their porches.” Henry filled up his thermos and took off the opposite direction of Dottie and me.

“You be nice,” I warned Dottie. At times, she could pull off a “bless your heart” in a rude kind of way that would make people do a double take once they registered what she’d said.

“I’m always nice.” Dottie laughed.

Who’s leg was Dottie pulling? Not mine.

“Hi there.” I greeted them with a smile and a snarling Dottie Swaggert. “I’m Mae. Welcome to Happy Trails. I’m the owner, and I live on the property.” I found guests loved to know I was just a camper away if they needed me. “This is Dottie, the manager, and she also lives here. We have a full-time handyman that lives here too, so we’ve got you covered if you need anything.”

A woman in a short-skirted pink suit from Chanel fanned her hand in front of her face after Dottie lit up her cigarette.

“This isn’t a smoke-free facility?” the woman asked. I wondered whether she was the bride’s or the groom’s mother.

“Puh-lease,” Dottie snapped. “I didn’t light it yet.”

“Mom,” the bride gushed. She took the sparkly clutch from underneath her armpit and literally smacked it into the chest of the woman next to her.

The woman used one hand to take the clutch and the other to push the glasses back up on her nose. She had brown hair that hung past her thin shoulders. She wore a pair of jeans and a green collared shirt, finishing the outfit off with a pair of sneakers. She was the only one who looked like she was actually going to be staying in a campground.

“It’s outside and a campground. We are here, so you’re going to have to accept the fact that Lewis and I are going to go get married here. Smoke or not.” She turned to me. “I’m Shay, the bride, in case you couldn’t tell. That’s Misty. My mother.” Shay wiggled her shoulders. “These are my bridesmaids.”

“Nice to meet y’all.” I tried to keep smiling when I noticed all the bridesmaids’ phones were capturing every second of Shay’s big life moment. “And who are you?”

Apparently, this woman wasn’t important. The other women were typing away on their phones, no doubt putting the moment on social media.

“Amy Hill, family secretary.”

Shay shrugged and buttoned up her lip.

Amy and I exchanged pleasantries. She had a planner hugged to her body and a pencil stuck behind her ear.

“When will the men arrive?” I asked.

From the email correspondence I’d had with Shay, she mentioned that the girls would be driving in an RV before the men, who were also driving here in an RV. She said the arrangements were like their bachelorette and bachelor parties on wheels.

“Not until much later this afternoon or even tonight.” Shay clasped her hands.

Amy flipped her planner open and used her finger to scan down the page.

“They will be arriving precisely around seven-ish,” Amy said.

Shay rolled her eyes. “Like I said, this afternoon or tonight.” The two women definitely had a little tension between them. “It’s even more beautiful than I imagined.”

The bridesmaids agreed, but the mother gave a little disgruntled moan.

“Then why don’t I take you on a quick walking tour of the main part of the campground so you’ll know exactly what’s here,” I suggested and met with smiles all around… except from the mother.

The mom had a familiarity about her, but I couldn’t put a finger on it, so I let it roll out of my mind. I gestured for all of them to follow me while Dottie went into the office to get the contracts for them to sign on our way back around.

Dottie and I were a team. We worked together like a well-oiled machine. It wasn’t exactly like that when I first drove into Happy Trails, but what great friendships weren’t built on some sort of initial conflict? Ignoring the mother’s grumbles under her breath about how her fancy shoes weren’t fit to walk on gravel, I started the tour.

“Some of the campers are people who actually call Normal home and live here year round.” I gestured to a few of the campers as we walked down the gravel road that circled the big lake in the middle. “There’s also campers set up for rental, so our guests don’t have to haul in a camper or simply do without a camper.”

The campground offered something for everyone. I was pretty proud of how I’d been able to bring the campground into the black, purchase some beat-up can-ham campers and restore them to their original glory, and add some wonderful cozy touches.

“Everyone has lake access. There is a pier on the other side where you can get in the paddle boats. The tiki hut over there will have some snacks and cocktails.” I was cut off by a couple of the bridesmaids squealing about how they had to get photos of them. “You can swim in the lake. There are fish. We are a catch and release but offer many different types of fish in our nightly cookouts.”

I wasn’t sure if they were listening, but I still told them how the guests walked around at night during the suppertime hours and sampled other campers’ food by the campfires. This practice was a way to bring community and something I thoroughly enjoyed.

“Oh! Lost dog,” Shay whined and pointed at the fluffy white ball of fur bolting toward us.

“She’s not lost.” I smiled. “She’s exactly where she needs to be. Fifi is my dog.”

Fifi wagged and danced around all the women. She knew if she did all sorts of standing on her hind legs and using her front paws like she was begging, she’d garner a lot of attention. Fifi lived for attention. The desire was in her DNA and trained in her before I got her and ruined her to be a hillbilly campground dog.

She had a very high pedigree until I babysat her for her original owner and she ended up getting pregnant by a pug, of all breeds. That was what did it in for poor Fifi, and her owner didn’t want her anymore since she was no longer able to show her for money. Good for me and Fifi because we were so happy and I couldn’t imagine what life would be like if I didn’t have to give her a bath every other week. Joking, of course.

“She’s very sweet, and you’ll see her around, along with a hound dog who goes by the name of Chester.” I glanced over at Hank Sharp’s camper, which he was renting from me.

“Renting” was a term I used loosely, since he was my boyfriend, and recently we’d just started using the love word, something I think that took us both by surprise.

“He’s very sweet too.” I had to reel those women back in and finish the tour or we’d never make it to town in time for their tour. We rounded the road to the back of the campground. At different offshoots, I had several concrete pads and hookups for the campers who brought in their own RVs and wanted to be surrounded by woods. This particular group wanted to show up in their RV and stay in one of the cute bungalow cabins I had for rent.

“These are the bungalows.” I gestured to the wooded area where you could barely see many bungalows’ front porches. “Bungalows one through four are for your group. I have the bridal party in bungalow one, the bride’s parents in bungalow three.” I handed the key to bungalow one to the bridesmaid, who seemed to be the most responsible, though it was a toss-up.

“Thank you,” Misty mouthed and took the key.

I laughed. “My feet are killing me.”

Amy Hill rushed to her side and took out a pair of more sensible shoes from the bag on her shoulder.

I ignored her comment because I wanted so bad to tell Misty she wasn’t dressed appropriately for a campground. But who was I to judge? I looked and acted exactly like her a couple of years ago.

“Bungalow two is for the groomsmen. I figured you’d want to be next to them.” I winked at Shay, who replied with a cute giggle. “Bungalow four is for the groom’s parents.”

Amy had opened her planner and was vigorously writing things down. Nothing that had anything to do with the Moon women was getting past her.

“You can’t put them on the opposite end, could you?” Misty questioned me with a hint of joking but a whole lot of seriousness, making me pause. “I’m joking. I’m sure your parents thought your husband wasn’t good enough for their little girl.”

“My parents are dead, and I’m not married.” I probably shouldn’t have said that, but I just blurted it out.

Jealous of Shay? Jealous of how much her mom lovingly doted on her? Yeah. All those. I still felt shortchanged in the parent department, since my entire family had been killed in a house fire when I was an early teen. Being put in the Kentucky foster care system wasn’t high on any girl’s list. However, I did end up being adopted by Mary Elizabeth Moberly, who I’d just re-established a relationship with after years of me not keeping up with her.

Another part of the Paul West saga that I’d put behind me was that Mary Elizabeth and Bobby Ray, my foster brother, called Normal home.

“Anyways…” I reeled in my feelings, since this was a business deal and I needed them to feel as comfortable as I could since we were going into the winter months in the forest. Not many people had the skin to camp or hike when there snow and bitter temperatures bit at your toes. “I’ve gotten all the goodies in there you sent.”

Shay had sent the bridesmaids gifts and bought the spa baskets from me. They included locally made items along with a nice white cotton robe and white slippers to match. I’d told Shay I’d take her group downtown so they could get a feel of the town and also take them to the wedding venue, The Barn, at the Old Train Station Motel on the other side of Normal. It sounded far, but it wasn’t.

“Thank you, Mae.” Shay squirmed with delight. “You’ve been so amazing. My family think Lewis and I are crazy for getting married here, but we love the outdoors and the atmosphere.” She twirled around, very aware that all the girls pointed their phones at her and put her images on all their social media accounts.

“Oh, Shay!” one of them yelled, and everyone gathered around her. “This has to go in the High Society magazine shoot.”

“High Society?” I was familiar with the national magazine. Who wasn’t?

“Yes.” Shay wiggled her shoulders. “Daddy knows people.”

I was sure, but I’d almost swear I saw Amy Hill roll her eyes. Or it might’ve been the sun catching her glasses at just the right angle.

“Her father is Tom Moon from Moonbucks Coffee.” Misty smiled.

“Misty Moon?” My “oh crap” meter went off. “Socialite Misty Moon?”

“The one and only. Please, don’t tell anyone I’m at a campground,” she muttered under her breath as she leaned over.

“Mom. This is Mae West.” Shay sounded like she knew me. “Paul and Mae West from Manhattan and the Hamptons. I read your story in the Times, and I had to come help you out. Come on”—she got close to me and nudged me—“you can’t tell me that you had no idea”—she rolled her eyes—“that Paul was scamming all of your friends.”

And that was how the Moons heard of Normal, Kentucky. And… I had a feeling they were never going to forget their time here.

 

 

TWO
“How do you know them?” Dottie had a tickle in her tone. She was enjoying how much fuss I attempted at trying to find something to wear from one of the clothing bins in my storage unit near the front of the campground.

We rented them to seasonal campers who kept their campers on site and only came a few times a year. Mostly they rented them for outdoor furniture and items they didn’t want to store in their campers.

“I told you. They were in our same social circle in the Hamptons. You know.” I stuck my nose up in the air. “Those types. I’d even gone to her house in Nantucket for a weekend fundraiser. Every guest had their own butler.”

I went back to digging into the bin, which clearly was no longer my taste. I’d not worn a designer label in a long time. Needless to say, these clothes were so outdated by Moon standards.

“Honey. You’ve got more class in your pinky now.” Dottie was so kind. She must’ve seen my struggle or the look on my face when I picked up an item of clothing and immediately stuck it back inside. “Besides, you got Henry all the time, not just a fancy weekend.”

I loved how Dottie always gave me the bright side of my life, not that I’d consider my tiny campervan or the Happy Trails lake a comparison to Nantucket and a personal weekend butler. I was happier than I’d ever been, but I wanted to prove it to the Moons.

“I can’t believe I have nothing to wear,” I groaned, putting the lid back on one of the bins to use as a seat. “Thank goodness I’m getting my hair done this afternoon.”

I didn’t get my hair done often, but when I did, I got highlights and a little snip here and there. Trust me when I say Cute-icles owner Helen Pyle didn’t have nearly the experience Shay Moon’s stylist had.

“I’m not sure why you care so much. You’ve got what they wanted. A place to stay while they have their wedding—and look at you.” Dottie’s finger circled. “You look way better than when you first got here.”

“Gee, thanks.” I laughed, not sure if it was a compliment.

“Look at your hair. It’s natural now. When you got here, your hair was stiff from all that hairspray. You wore a ton of makeup, and you didn’t have the greatest diet.” She rattled off all the bad things. “And that snotty attitude you had is long gone. It did you some good to hit rock bottom.”

“Again, gee, thanks.” I still wasn’t sure if she was trying to make me feel better because I’d not realized I’d changed so much. “Maybe that’s why I’m having a hard time trying to figure out something to wear. If I was still that same person, I’d probably have put on the white suit and a cute pair of flats, but the thought of wearing something like that makes me feel…” I stuck my tongue out and rolled my eyes up into my head, making Dottie laugh.

“See. That right there.” She shoved her finger in my face. “You’d never made that face when you first rolled into Happy Trails.”

“You know what.?” I put my hands on my thighs and pushed myself up to stand. “You’re right. These cropped jeans and maybe the light Happy Camper sweatshirt is the perfect outfit for a nice fall day to show them around.”

“That’s the Mae West I know.” Dottie smiled. “Plus, you might run into Hank, and he likes you in casual clothing.”

“He is volunteering today at the Chicken Fest booth.” I couldn’t wait to see Hank in a chicken hat like the kind Colonel Sanders from Kentucky Fried Chicken wore in his photos.

Chicken Fest was a local festival that was much larger in other towns in and around the Daniel Boone National Forest, but we did our best giving our thanks to Colonel Sanders for his contribution to our chicken industry and bringing universal attention to our state.

“Wait until you try Ty Randall’s fried chicken.” Dottie licked her lips. “I can taste it now.”

“I don’t think Shay Moon or her mother would ever put fried chicken in their mouths.” The thought of it made me laugh so hard. “They’d think they’d gain ten pounds just looking at it.”

“Wouldn’t that be something.” Dottie’s eyes light up. “Bride’s day is ruined because you took her to eat fried chicken and she couldn’t fit into her dress.”

The idea of it made us laugh so hard that tears streamed down our faces. Both of us jerked around when we heard a knock on the outside of my storage unit.

“Shay.” I couldn’t help it, but seeing her and saying her name sent me into another fit of laughter.

“I’m sorry to interrupt.” She stood underneath the garage style door in an outfit much more appropriate for the chill in the air, no longer wearing the veil or sash. Amy Hill was still by her side, looking down and not saying a word. “But you mentioned you’d take us to see the wedding venue and downtown Normal.”

“We need to get moving, since I did make room in the schedule for this. I also let Mr. Moon know the change and put it on his Google calendar.” Amy nodded.

“Ooh-kay.” I couldn’t help but want to grab Amy by the shoulders and shake her until she could unwind a little. “Are y’all ready?” I asked.

“Yep. We all piled in the RV, so I figured you could ride shotgun to lead the way.” Shay wasn’t dumb. She was in charge and knew exactly what she wanted.

“Perfect.” I looked at Dottie. “You good for a while?”

“All good.” She put her hand up when I started to say something else. “I’ve got the dogs.”

“Thank you.” And that was how Dottie and I worked. She always knew what I was going to say and was always there to take care of Fifi and Chester, now that he was there.

One-way roads ran down Main Street, with a grassy median between them. The median was a large area filled with picnic tables and large oak trees on each side of an amphitheater and covered seating area. Thick white pillars you’d see on the front porch of a plantation home held up the structure. Each post had a real gas lantern hanging off it. Large ferns toppled over several ceramic planters. There were twinkling lights around each pole, giving the entire area such a romantic feel. Soon the ferns would be replaced with winter flowers as the trees shed their leaves.

Several little white tents were set up in the median today, since the Chicken Fest was in full swing. Amy Hill drove the big RV, to my surprise, and did it well. I’d only learned to drive RVs after I’d moved to Happy Trails just in case I needed to help a guest. Luckily, my little campervan wasn’t this big. But I also had a small car I drove around town, which helped me keep my home sitting on the concrete pad at the campground.

Little shops ran along each side of Main Street. All the shops were free standing cottage-style homes with a small courtyard between them.

The stores included the Smelly Dog, which was a pet groomer, the Normal Diner, and the Tough Nickel Thrift Shop and Deter’s Feed-N-Seed, along with more boutique-type shops that I couldn’t wait to check out. The display windows of each shop even had visions of what the national park looked like during the fall and winter months to help entice tourists to come back, since the winter tended to be our slowest season. The Trails Coffee Shop, our only coffee shop, had a line out the door for the delicious original blend being served. A month ago, I was lucky enough to have gotten an early sample, since Gert Hobson and I were friends.

She was the owner of the coffee shop and also contributed to some of the specialty baskets I offered at Happy Trails. Plus she provided all the free coffee I kept for the guests in the campground’s hospitality/recreation center.

All the store-owners in Normal really did help out to promote everyone and everything so tourists would keep coming back.

“My stomach is growling,” one of the bridesmaids mentioned. They were all were glued to the RV’s large windows with the sheds pulled up so they could all get a look at our cozy town.

“That’s the smell of Ty Randall’s fried chicken.” I was a little partial to Ty’s food. He owned the Normal Diner and was once a pretty sought-after chef in San Francisco, California.

Luckily for Normal, he found his way back to his roots and almost found a spot in my heart after a brief courtship, but in the end, Hank Sharp the man, not the manners, had won my pitter-patter.

“Don’t even think of it,” Misty warned the group of squealing women. Unfortunately, I think they’d overtake her.

“We are so going, Mother. It’s my wedding.” Shay’s mouth was practically watering. “Will it still be open after we check out the venue?”

“Don’t worry.” I couldn’t help but notice the worried tone in her voice about missing out on the fried chicken. “You’ll have plenty of time. It’s not like it’s New York City, where everything is go-go-go. Normal is like a turtle.”

The slow-paced life did take some time for me to get used to, and some days I did long for the hustle and bustle of the city street, but looking at Shay and her friends made me not miss it at all.

“Mae,” Shay had a tone in her voice that made me immediately think she was about to ask me a favor. “Can we have my rehearsal dinner at the fest tonight?”

“Rehearsal dinner at a Chicken Fest?” Misty nearly broke her leg making her way over to Shay and me.

Amy Hill snickered from behind the big RV steering wheel. Shay’s head jerked toward the driver’s seat. Amy was looking back, using the rearview mirror, and must’ve caught Shay glaring back at her because I noticed Amy’s fingers grip the wheel and her knuckles whiten.

“Mother.” Shay’s nostrils flared. Her eyes grew big. “This is my wedding. Mine.”

“I’ve never heard anyone having a rehearsal dinner at a chicken festival. It won’t look good on the societal pages.” Misty Moon hadn’t changed a bit. She was still all about what it looked like to others, not what made her daughter or even herself happy.

“It’s my wedding. My daddy said I can have whatever I want, and I want my rehearsal dinner there. Tonight.” She crossed her arms as if that was that and that was the final say.

Misty let out a long sigh and slowly blinked before she sat back down on the RV couch.

“Just keep going straight and take the curves slow. It can get a bit windy through the park,” I told Amy when I felt her slow the RV down and sat back to enjoy the gorgeous day shaping up, because circumstances in here weren’t going well at all. There was so much tension between the mother and daughter.

The bridesmaids ohh’ed and aww’ed over the foliage.

“What tree is that with the pink ones?” Shay had pointed out the sassafras tree.

“That’s a sassafras.” I continued to tell her that it was unusual how more than one leaf shape occurred on the tree and mentioned that the yellow, orange, red and pink leaves made it a very distinguished tree for the fall.

“I have to say, it is beautiful here.” Nothing was wrong with Misty’s eyes. She was seeing all the autumn season had to offer, and the forest was showing off for them today.

“It is, and it’s one reason I didn’t come back to the city.” I gestured out of the front windshield. “Fawn Road is coming up on the right. You’re going to turn, and the Old Train Motel will be right down the road.”

Shay nodded.

“I thought you’d not come back so you didn’t have to face everyone.” Misty held nothing back, just as I remembered people saying about her.

“No. I had nothing to do with Paul’s shenanigans and criminal activity. Everything he did to everyone here in Normal, I’d made good on.” I quickly told them how I’d helped get the economy jumpstarted again by working hard to bring the campground back to life and bringing them what they saw today. I also threw in how I’d gotten the key to the city. “I could’ve sold since I’ve had plenty of offers, but I’ve found a true life here. I’m in love with the slow life that did take me a hot New York minute to get used to.”

They all laughed at my joke.

“Honestly, the warmth of the people is what kept me here. I feel like I finally belong.” I stopped talking when Amy pulled into the motel parking lot.

Old Train Station Motel was pretty new. Not the structure—that was centuries old. Coke Ogden, the owner of the motel, had made huge renovations on what was a real train station that had been a source of travel to and from the Daniel Boone National Park.

The massive concrete station was beautiful, framed by the dramatic backdrop of the mountains of the national park. Coke had a great idea to use one of the old barns, after tons of money were thrown in, to make it structurally sound and back to gorgeous, as a wedding venue.

When I first moved here, I’d read about the property where the Old Train Motel was located. Some of the hardest trails and climbs of the area had started on the property. Those trails were the most appealing to tourists who came to Normal for the hiking.

Right in the middle of the motel was a domed, circular, open courtyard area with six massive concrete pillars holding up a dramatic patina metal roof with a rooster weather vane. The one-level covered structure jutted out equally on both sides of the dome, with five doors on each side and those same big concrete pillars standing tall and ornate.

The structure had ten doors with only ten rooms, so getting rooms was very hard. Coke had plenty of room to expand, but from what I’d heard, she wanted to make sure she could keep the ten rooms booked and grow from there.

Amy had put the RV in park and opened the door. I stepped out first. Coke was working in the vegetable garden she’d planted on the right side of the property. She stood up and looked over at me from underneath her wide-brimmed hat.

“Mae West, did you upgrade?” she hollered from the other side of the black Kentucky Fence Post, the actual name for the fence Coke had put around the property.

“Hey, Coke!” I waved and stood next to the RV door while the women filed out. “This is your client, Shay Moon.”

“Well, I’ll be.” Coke took the hat off her head and smacked it against her hip on her way over to us. She tried to run her hands down her blond hair to make sure she was presentable. It was as if she had a hot curl iron in her fingers. Magically, the edges of her hair curled up just like Mary Tyler Moore’s hair did on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Coke was always well put together, even when working in the garden. She had on a black headband that kept the shoulder-length hairdo off her face. She had petite birdlike features and a tiny frame to match. Bermuda shorts swallowed her legs. She wore a long-sleeved teal cotton shirt, and a matching silk scarf was knotted around her neck, which was exactly how I’d expected to find her.

“If I’d known you were bringing the bride and the bridal party, I’d have gotten a little more presentable. I’m getting my hair done up for the big event.” Coke gave me the stank eye.

“Helen?” I asked her, referring to Helen Pyle at Cute-icles, who did all our hair. Coke nodded. “I’m getting my hair done this afternoon too.”

“We can come back later.” Shay shrugged.

“Ridiculous. Now that you’re here, I guess I can’t do anything but offer you some delicious sweet tea from the Caboose Diner. We have the best sweet tea in the park. I make it myself.”

“That, I can say, is the absolute truth.” I agreed about the sweet tea.

“Thank you, but we have dresses to fit into.” Misty was quick to remind them that they needed to keep their lips shut and not have any fun.

“We will have a couple pitchers.” Shay wiggled her shoulders and grinned, ignoring her mother.

“Whatever the bride wants.” Coke winked and also ignored Misty. “Let’s go.”

Misty dragged the end of the line, huffing and puffing all the way through the courtyard of the motel, and continued into the diner. Amy was definitely enjoying the mother and daughter duo. Even though she kept her mouth shut, she had a slight grin on her lips, and she did well disguising it when one of them looked her way.

“I’ll make a note in here about the Chicken Fest.” Amy already had her pencil ready to write down whatever she was making a note about.

“I’ll get those teas, and I’ve got to make a quick phone call.” Coke disappeared into the kitchen of the diner.

Shay and her friends gushed how cute the diner was, but in reality, it was a typical diner you’d find in the South. The booths hugged the outside walls. The middle of the diner had metal tables and chairs. All seating was covered in red speckled vinyl, even the bar stools that lined the entire counter in the back.

“There couldn’t be this many people staying in those ten rooms.” Misty started to count all the people.

“Oh no. Most of these are citizens that just came to get a cup of coffee and chat.” I left out how the Caboose Diner had become one of the places the locals came to exchange gossip and get the latest news on their friends that their friends didn’t want anyone to know. Small-town life at its finest.

“It’s just like the show grandmother and grandfather used to watch.” Shay bounced on the toes of her shoes with delight. “What was that show, mother?”

“The Andy…” Misty tapped her temple, trying to remember.

“The Andy Griffith Show?” I asked, knowing the show very well since they played it on the TV here nightly.

“That’s it!” Shay was so excited. “Did you base your town on that show?”

“Ummm. No.” Did she really think towns were based on Hollywood shows? “I think they based the show on real small southern town life.”

“Just think, Shay,” one of the women gushed, “you’re getting married in a small southern town. So romantic.”

That made all the women squeal and take even more photos of the diner. I felt sorry for them, really. They were really not living in the moment and joy of what this had to offer for Shay and her big day.

They’d even taken photos of the sweet iced tea Coke served in the Mason jars.

“Just like Southern Living.” One of them held her phone up and took a selfie of her and her Mason jar.

“Why don’t we get this show on the road?” Coke asked the ladies, and we filed out of the diner.

A lot of stares came from the patrons in the diner. It wasn’t every day a group of gorgeous ladies showed up in Normal all dressed to the hilt. Their clothing was really what made them stand out. We were used to hikers in gear and other  appropriate dress.

Luckily for us, it hadn’t rained in a few weeks and the ground was nice and hard when we walked in the field down to the second barn.

“It’s not the first one?” Misty had veered to the first barn we were passing.

“No. That’s used for other events. The wedding barn is so romantic,” Coke gushed.

I could’ve blurted out how I’d tripped on a murdered body next to the wedding barn just a few months ago but decided it wouldn’t be good for anyone to know this was a previous homicide scene.

This was the first time I’d seen the barn since then, and I was pretty excited about it. The barn was tucked down into the valley of the property and overlooked 13 beautiful acres that themselves overlooked the valley.

“Oh my goodness,” Shay gasped when she experienced the beauty and elegance the Daniel Boone Forest had to offer.

Coke had really kept the renovations inspired by nature and gave the best panoramic views the property had to offer.

“Are you ready?” Coke smiled when she asked the question. She had gripped the closed sliding barn doors.

“It’s just like the home reveal on Chip and Jo’s show.” Shay brought her hands up to her face. She must’ve really loved the rustic and southern stuff if she was talking about the HGTV shows.

Dramatically, Coke shoved the doors open to the 11,000-square foot, air-conditioned barn with soaring 35-foot ceilings. There were three custom cupolas and windows galore. Natural sunlight flowed through the entire barn.

Coke watched with a big smile on her face as they all took a few minutes to stand in awe and walk around.

“On the second level,” Coke pointed out, “there is a bridal suite with a private deck. Perfect for photos.”

Shay looked over at Misty with tears in her eyes.

The two women embraced, and then I knew Misty would keep her mouth shut because Shay’s happiness was all that mattered to her. Shay was happy. Happiness was practically oozing out of her pores.

I glanced over at Amy, who was standing in the back. I noticed her rolling her eyes at the embrace the bride and her mom were sharing. It was odd since she’d been so up in Shay’s face and getting things on the calendar. I wondered why she wasn’t busy writing down the types of decorations Shay liked.

“The small barn to the right of this barn is the groom’s barn. Since you are getting married right before the sun sets, you’re going to be able to get some amazing photos from the covered porch attached to his barn.” Coke continued the tour.

“Is that a real silo?” The bridesmaids were starting to notice all the real beauty the Old Train Station property had to offer.

While Coke told the group the history of the property, I noticed Christine Watson from the Cookie Crumble Bakery slip in the side door. She was carrying a box. I headed over to her to see if she needed some help.

“Hiya.” She grinned from ear to ear. The freckles along her nose were just one of her cute features. She had her brown hair braided in pigtails. Her overalls had the bakery name and logo embroidered on the front pocket. She was a doll, down to her Converse high-top tennis shoes.

“What do you have here?” I asked.

“Well, Coke had called me and said y’all had showed up to see the venue, so I thought I’d just meet y’all here to have Shay sample some of the cake options.” She opened up the box.

“And her tour guide too?” I licked my lips.

“Of course. If you help me with the rest.” She winked.

Over the next few minutes, we walked back and forth from her bakery van into one of the back rooms of the barn Coke had made into a tasting room. Tables were set up there along with a wine refrigerator so the bride could taste samples.

Coke had taken them outside to the luscious meadow, surrounded by trees, that would provide a picture-perfect setting for their wedding photos.

Coke Ogden had spared no expense. And neither did Christine.

“Who is at the bakery?” I asked since I knew Christine was always working.

“Mallory, if you can believe that.” Christine had brought in some cut pewter trays that went along with what seemed to be shaping up as Shay’s wedding theme.

Southern. Or at least her idea of southern. Little did she realize that most southern weddings here took at least eighteen months to prepare for.

“I haven’t seen much of Mallory,” I said and started to arrange the bite-sized piece of various types of cakes Christine had made into petite fours on the platters.

“She’s been trying to get us into other small towns in the Daniel Boone National Park.” Christine stepped back and looked at the different platforms ranging in height before she moved a couple around. “I told her that I wasn’t going to move and I was only going to work in the one in Normal. She’s going to have to start working in them.”

“What does she do?” I handed her the platters as she pointed to them, and I watched her work her display magic.

“She does mainly the money, website and the ordering. She also will work in the test kitchen on new products.” Christine had the different trays all ready for the ladies to test the cakes.

“Do you like baking new products?” I wondered if she ever got tired of being behind the counter. She was the face of the Cookie Crumble—the one in public.

“I do make various things when the shop is slow, but Mallory really has a knack for that type of talent.” It was nice to see Christine and her sister got along so well.

I’d heard many times that you never went into business with your family. There was always one exception to the rule, and they were it.

“Ladies, I’m excited to introduce you to Christine Watson, the baker for your wedding cake.” Coke had entered the room with the bridal party trailing behind.

Their eyes lit up when they looked at the table and the magic Christine had created. I’d been too busy focusing on taking a sample for myself to even notice how Christine had used wooden crates to flip over, stand up, and lay down in various ways to display more petite fours in the southern theme. She’d also put out a couple of Mason jars filled with the mix of wildflowers you could find all over the national forest in the fall.

The pops of purple coneflower, baby’s breath, “Alaska” Shasta daisy, purple prairie clover, mixed corn poppy, clasping coneflower, black-eyed Susan, and prairie coneflower were just a few I’d recognized.

By the look on Shay’s face, Christine had hit the mark. If this made her happy, then I was happy and figured Misty was on board with the rehearsal being at Chicken Fest.

Everyone was listening to Christine and growing googly eyed over her samples. I sent Ty Randal a quick text asking if he’d be able to get twenty or so fried chicken meals together with a brief description of why. Not that I needed to use Pierce as my own tool or even that Ty Randal needed the international, attention since Ty was a well-known national chef, but I did put in the text that he might be featured in High Society. He sent me a thumbs up, which signaled a go.

“Look at the chalkboards.” Misty even had a moment of romantic weakness. “They even have your name on them.”

I stepped back near Coke and Amy while we watched in awe as Christine did her thing. Mallory knew exactly what she was doing when she put Christine in front of the customer because Christine even sold me and I wasn’t anywhere near getting married.

“You aren’t noting the types of cake Shay likes for Mr. Moon?” I asked Amy, somewhat sarcastically.

“Right. I should be doing that.” She hurried off.

Coke and I laughed.

“Keep in mind the cakes can come in various forms and not just the traditional tiered wedding cakes.” Christine pulled out a photo album. “In fact, most of the weddings I create for have gone a lot more southern by using drip design, ruffle design, half-naked cakes, and rosette.”

“Half-naked,” Coke snickered. “Who ever heard alike?”

“You’ve got yourself a gold mine here.” I shook my head. Both of us turned when we heard someone walk into the cake-tasting room.

That someone was a man with a camera hooked around his neck.

“Pierce!” Shay screamed with excitement, rushing over to give the man a hug. “Everyone, this is the big secret I’ve been keeping. Pierce is the editor-in-chief of High Society.”

All of a sudden, Pierce became the most popular person in the room.

“You made it right in time.” Shay glowed with delight. “We’ve not tasted the cake yet, so everyone needs to stand back and let him get some amazing photos.”

“What on earth is High Society?” Coke asked.

“It’s the premier magazine in New York City and the Hamptons. Anyone who is anyone is featured in there. It’s a big deal.” Apparently, Shay’s wedding was getting a big spread if they sent their top photographer to Normal.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been in it, only to be shamed after Paul had… you know.” I looked at Pierce. It was the first time I’d ever seen the man behind the camera. I’d seen him printed on all the photos in the magazine but never seen the face.

He wore a pair of skinny khakis, a blue button-down that was equally tight, and a pair of lace-up ankle boots. His black hair was shiny with the right amount of gel and neatly parted to the side. He wore a fancy gold watch and gold pinky ring.

“Where is she?” he asked Shay. They both slowly turned their heads to look at me. “Mae West. The Mae West in person.”

“Mae,” Shay said, saying my name like she had something very important to tell me. “Please don’t get upset, but I told Pierce that if he came to take my photos, then he’d get an exclusive interview with you.”

“I… umm…” I rapidly started to blink and turned to find an exit.

“That is not going to happen.” Coke stepped in and took up for me. Amy Hill was nowhere to be seen. “There’s no way Mae West is going to give any sort of interview about the past. The past is the past, and she’s a do-gooder around these parts. We love her and accept her just as she is.”

Shay drew back and glared at Coke.

“If you don’t want to have your wedding here, that’s fine with me. I don’t need the money.” Coke put an arm around me.

“Is this true?” Pierce’s slim shoulders relaxed as his head tilted. “Shay?”

“Now, can’t we all discuss this over some cake?” Christine must have been trying to smooth out the very sticky situation.

“Cake isn’t going to help this.” Misty crossed her arms. Her brows rose.

“No.” Shay’s eyes lowered as she glared at me. “Daddy will, though.”

Amy grabbed her pencil and flipped open her calendar. I wanted to grab the pencil from her and break it right in half.

 

end of excerpt

Valleys, Vehicles, & Victims

is available in the following formats:

Sep 27, 2019

ISBN-13: 978-1078339360

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