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Tag: #CozyMystery

Spoonful of Murder: Chapter 1 Exclusive

Even after three years, it never got any easier to hear my alarm go off at four o’clock in the morning. A chill seeped through the small hole at my feet where Pepper, my schnauzer, stuck his nose out from underneath the covers.

“Can’t you go in late?” My bedmate, Patrick, rolled over and tugged me into his arms. He snuggled his nose in my neck. “It’s cold and snowy.”

When Patrick broke the silence of the night, Pepper and Sassy jumped off the bed.

“That’s the best time to be open.” I gave him a quick kiss before I rolled to the edge of the bed, where I slipped my feet into my cozy slippers. “I’ll stoke the fire.”

Patrick was already snoring before I could slip my thick robe on over my pajamas and leave our bedroom in our small cabin.

“Okay. Okay.” At the door, the tippy-tap of Sassy and Pepper’s toenails clicked on the old hardwood floors.

I flipped on the light in the family room to greet the black standard poodle and grey schnauzer, Patrick’s children and mine.

They bolted out the door and bounced off the porch into the deep snow. I shook my head and went to get a towel out of the laundry room so I could brush off their paws when they came back in.

They were taking their sweet time, giving me the opportunity to stoke the embers and put some more logs in the woodburning stove. The cabin was small, and the wood burner was the perfect solution to keep the chill out and heat the house quickly. We rarely had to use the gas heat.

“I’m coming.”

The dogs scratched at the door.

“Are y’all hungry?”

Both of them were so well trained, they knew to stop on the towel I’d laid in front of the door so I could brush the snow off their furry feet and keep it from balling up.

The inside of the cabin was one big room with a combination kitchen and dining room. The bathroom and laundry room were located in the back, on the far right. A set of stairs led up to one big room we considered our bedroom.

“Good night, Sass.” I called for her before she darted back up the stairs to go back to bed with her dad. “Just me and you.”

Pepper stayed at my heels as we headed into the kitchen area, where I grabbed a quick scoop of Pepper’s kibble to hold him over while I got ready for work. He would get his real breakfast there.

It was our routine, except for Sundays. Like Pepper, the Bean Hive Coffeehouse was my baby, and it was open six days a week. On Sunday after church, I spent most of the afternoon at the Bean Hive, making treats like muffins, casseroles, quiche, cookies, and really anything that I wanted to serve with the coffee.

Plus I’d been really working hard on creating my own coffee with my new roastery equipment. Creating some new Christmas blends had been a lot of fun, and I was excited to serve those this morning. The snow was going to bring in a lot of customers.

Some people might think the opposite, but residents of Honey Springs, Kentucky, loved to get together and gossip—um… talk over coffee.

Let’s be clear. When someone consumed something as delicious as coffee, it warmed the body, invigorated the mind, and made one feel good. The Bean Hive created a fun atmosphere for locals to come together and enjoy a cup of coffee while catching up on the day’s news, and even the tourists had found their spot there too.

They came in after a day of shopping at the boardwalk’s local small businesses next to the coffeehouse to take a load off their feet and enjoy a delicious cup of coffee with a sweet treat. They also took advantage of looking at my corkboard, where the month’s local activities were posted.

The board was filled with fun things for the Christmas season. I was looking forward to two events—the Christmas Pawrade, featuring a parade downtown for fur babies, and the Holiday Progressive Dinner, which was a fundraiser for Pet Palace, our local SPCA.

The progressive dinner was new this year, and I was excited about it. Anything I could do for the local animals, I was all over it.

“Slow down,” I called to Pepper. He was scarfing down the kibble like it was his last meal. “I’ll be back.”

I talked to my four-legged companion like he understood me. Most times, I felt like he did.

If I stopped to listen, I could hear Patrick’s light snoring. I smiled and flipped on the light in the laundry room, where I kept my uniform for work.

It would inevitably get coffee sloshed on it or food where I’d haphazardly swipe my hands down me, missing the apron I also wore. But it was nice to have a few long-sleeved shirts with the Bean Hive logo on them so I didn’t have to think too hard about what to wear.

“You ready?”

Pepper was curled up on his bed in front of the potbelly but perked right up when he heard me get my keys off the hook that hung next to the door.

I took one good look around the cabin before I left, checking that everything was in order and nothing could set the cabin on fire, like the woodburning stove.

A fire had happened here once. Luckily, I wasn’t home, but with my world—Patrick and Sassy—inside, double checking had become part of my morning routine, since they did sleep in a little longer.

“Let’s get your sweater on.”

Pepper loved his little winter wear. The drive to the boardwalk wasn’t too far from here, but the car would be cold, and I just couldn’t bear seeing him shiver.

Based on the way he stood there waiting patiently, wagging his tail, he, too, was excited to be warm and toasty.

“There you go.” The smile was stuck on my face at the sheer sight of my sweet fur baby. He’d been such a joy and companion.

The moon hung high in the sky, shining the perfect spotlight to our car. It had snowed about two feet over the past couple of days, which I loved. The snow fell at a nice steady pace that allowed just enough snow to cover the grass, trees, and tops of buildings while letting the snowplows keep the streets from getting covered and icy.

This was exactly what Honey Springs needed.

A white Christmas.

“How about some festive tunes?” I asked Pepper, who was already nestled in the passenger seat with his doggy seatbelt clipped. He sat there like a human child, staring out the window.

I flipped the radio on to our local station, which played twenty-four-seven Christmas music this time of year. Just hearing Bing sing “Rudolph” had my fingers drumming and toes tapping, creating a joy that was truly so intense  that I knew it was going to be a really great day.

Even though I’d taken the curvy road from the cabin along the banks of Lake Honey Springs, I got through hearing only “Rudolph” and the hippopotamus song, the one in which the kid asked for a hippo for Christmas, before we pulled into the parking lot for the boardwalk.

Lake Honey Springs was really what brought tourists to Honey Springs. People loved to boat, fish, and rent cabins along the area, which made for great business on the boardwalk. That was where the Bean Hive Coffeehouse was located.

My dream job of owning a coffee shop came to life after I’d gotten a divorce from my college sweetheart, who turned out to be a sweetheart to many, and returned to where I’d known comfort and solace as a child.

Right into the arms of my aunt, Maxine Bloom, known around here as Maxi. Honey Springs was also where I’d gotten to visit with Patrick Cane, now my husband, when we were kids. Let’s just say that we had feelings for each other from the first day I laid eyes on the scrawny kid.

Fast forward to now. We were happily married, I rented the Bean Hive Coffeehouse space from Aunt Maxi, and my ex, Kirk, was out of our life until recently.

Let’s just say he was a new citizen of Honey Springs, and discussing him would require me to indulge in a lot of coffee. I’d yet to have my normal servings.

“Okay. What do you say we get our day started?” I unclipped my seat belt and then Pepper’s, grabbed my bag from the back seat, and opened the door.

Pepper delighted so much in the snow. I stood on the bottom step of the stairs that led up to the boardwalk and watched him shove his nose into the snow and come up with a snowball mustache.

“Come on,” I called out to him and headed up the steps.

The carriage lights along the boardwalk had twinkling lights roped around the base. The dowel rods had a light-up wreath hanging down. Even the railing of the boardwalk was covered in garland and red bows every few feet.

The Beautification Committee had really gone out of their way to make the boardwalk a new tourist destination for holiday travelers. The annual Christmas Pawrade had become super popular. In this fun little Christmas event, locals dressed up their animals, and we marched around the downtown park.

Since we started it, Christmas in Honey Springs had grown bigger and bigger. The townspeople had added a tree-lighting ceremony, Santa, and vendor booths, just to name a few.

This year, a progressive dinner was added to the list, only it was a little different than the  typical progressive dinner held at people’s homes. Not only was this progressive dinner meant to raise money, but it was a cool way for local businesses to showcase their shops. During the winter months, the lack of tourism made lean times for small businesses like mine and the other shops on the boardwalk.

Of course I was hosting the after-dinner coffee and desserts in my shop’s honor. Aunt Maxi had been the one to really get the dinner together.

The first stop would be for cocktails down at the Watershed Restaurant, located on the lake. The appetizers were taking place at All About the Details, the shop next door to mine. The dinner portion would be hosted at Wild and Whimsy Antiques, though the food was coming from the In and Out Diner. After that, it would be my turn to provide everyone with the best coffee in Kentucky. Or at least in Honey Springs.

Today my agenda was to make as many of the desserts as possible so we only had to pull them out of the refrigerator, flip on the industrial coffee pots, and enjoy the winding down of the evening’s festivities.

It didn’t take long for Pepper to catch up to me and dart right on past. He knew exactly where to go and wait for me.

“You’re so good.” I got the coffeeshop keys out of my bag and unlocked the door.

I ran my hand up along the inside wall and felt for the light switch. The inside came to life.

A few café tables dotted the café’s interior, as did two long window tables that had stools butted up to them on each side of the front door. The front of the café was a perfect spot to sit, enjoy the beautiful Lake Honey Springs, and sip on your favorite beverage.

Today would be especially gorgeous, thanks to the view of all the fresh snow lying on top of the frozen lake. This was my favorite spot in the coffeehouse, but today I was sure my spot would be glued behind the counter, making all the warm drinks for customers.

On my way back to the kitchen to get the ovens started, I knew Pepper would be ready for something to eat. Since he wasn’t allowed to go into the food prep area because of health department regulations, I got a scoop of his kibble and tossed it into his bowl. He could get his belly full, lie down in his doggy bed, and take a nap while I got the coffeehouse ready for the day.

There were so many things to do. Flipping on all the industrial coffee makers was the priority. I walked behind the L-shaped counter and flipped the coffee makers on one by one before I finally walked through the swinging kitchen doors.

I loved the kitchen so much. The big workstation in the middle was perfect! I could mix, stir, add, cut, or do whatever I needed to do to get all the food made. The kitchen had a huge walk-in freezer, a big refrigerator, several shelving units that held all the dry ingredients, and a big pantry I used to store many of the bags of coffee beans I’d ordered from all over the world.

Now that I had my own roastery attached to the kitchen, I made a point of adding roasting fresh beans to my Sunday ritual.

“Yoooo-hoooo!” I heard my one and only employee call from the coffeehouse just as I turned on the ovens.

Soon the door swung open, and there stood Bunny Bowowski. Her little brown coat had great big buttons up the front, and her pillbox hat matched it perfectly. Her brown pocketbook hung from the crease of her arm and swung back and forth.

“You’re here early.” I was delighted to see her. Bunny was a regular at the coffeehouse when I first opened. Since she’d long been retired, she decided to help me out, which was how she became an employee.

“Floyd said he’d bring me, since he is heading out of town to visit some family this morning.” She pulled the bobby pins from her short grey hair and took off the hat. With her mouth, she pulled the pins apart and slipped them on the lacy part of her hat.

“You didn’t want to go?” I asked.

“Heavens no.” She peeled off her coat and folded it over her arm. “If I did that, Floyd would think I wanted more than companionship. At my age, there’s no way I want to take care of a man in the”—her head wobbled from side to side as she came up with a number—“ten years.”

“You’re going to be alive longer than ten years.” I laughed and slipped the muffin tin in the oven. “I’d never figure you to be in your seventies. Ever.”

“I attribute that to lots of coffee that keeps me active.” She wiggled her brows. “I’ll go get the rest of the duties done. I bet we’re busy today. Everyone is looking forward to the progressive dinner tonight.”

She left me alone in the kitchen. With Bunny being early, it would be a good time for me to get the coffee and treats down to the Cocoon Inn.

Every day, Camey Montgomery, owner of the inn, served Bean Hive Coffeehouse coffee and a breakfast-type item in the Inn’s hospitality room. Sometimes if I was running a little behind on getting them to her, she’d send up her husband, Walker Peavler.

Not today. I hurried over to the workstation and grabbed three industrial coffee pots with the cantilever push arm from the shelf underneath.

“How do you think Maxine is going to take the news that All About the Details won’t be able to host the appetizers?” Bunny’s question caught me off guard.

“What?” I asked and stopped to see her face. “Why isn’t Babette doing the appetizers?”

Babette Cliff was the owner of All About the Details. Her store was really an events venue with spectacular views of Lake Honey Springs and the little island across it.

“Fell on ice.” Bunny tsked. “I told her just the other day how she needed to invest in some good snow boots to walk from the parking lot because she was going to fall in those heels.” Bunny tapped her temple. “I should be reading people’s fortunes. The very next day, she slipped on some black ice, and down she went.”

Bunny clapped her hands together then slid them apart like one hand was the pavement and the other was Babette slipping on it.

“Broke an ankle.” Bunny shook her head and headed behind the bar, where a few of the industrial pots had beeped.

I grabbed a couple of the carafes, set them aside, and replaced them with the ones for the hospitality room at the hotel.

“I think she’s going to have a meltdown.” Bunny gave a sly smile like she was going to love seeing Aunt Maxi in a little pickle. She walked over, got one carafe from the counter at a time, and took them over to the coffee bar.

“Who?” I asked, not sure if she was talking about Babette.

“Maxine Bloom.” Bunny’s smile told me she would personally love to see Aunt Maxi squirm, since they weren’t the best of friends. She made her way to the end of the counter to the coffee bar.

On each side of the counter was a drink stand. One was a coffee bar with six industrial thermoses containing different blends of my specialty coffees as well as one filled with a decaffeinated blend, even though I never clearly understood the concept of decaffeinated coffee. When I first opened, Aunt Maxi made sure I understood some people drank only the unleaded stuff.

The coffee bar had everything you needed to take a coffee with you, even an honor system that let you pay and go. Honestly, I never truly took the time to see if the honor system worked. In my head and heart, I liked to believe everyone was kind and honest.

“I guess I could do the appetizers then come back for coffee.” It was a mere suggestion. The last thing I wanted to do was come up with appetizers today and make sure the coffee beans I’d roasted for the special occasion were perfect.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bunny tidying up everything as she went along.

During her shift, she took pride in making sure everything looked nice and presentable. This is just like your home. You need to keep it tidy and clean, she’d told me one time. I’ve never forgotten those words either.

While Bunny did the straightening and I waited for the coffee to brew for the hotel, I decided to change out the menus.

Instead of investing in a fancy menu or even menu boards that attached to the wall, I’d bought four large chalkboards that hung down from the ceiling over the L-shaped glass countertop.

The first chalkboard menu hung over the pie counter and listed the pies and cookies and their prices. The second menu hung over the tortes and quiches. The third menu, over where the L-shaped counter bent, listed the breakfast casseroles and drinks. Above the other counter, the chalkboard listed lunch options, including soups, as well as catering information.

“I better get rid of these soups if I’m going to make some mini-soup bowls for appetizers. It’ll be a good night for them.” I swiped the eraser across the chalk board, taking the harvest soup off the menu.

Bunny had moved on to the tea bar to get it ready for the breakfast crowd.

On the opposite end of the counter from the coffee bar stood the tea bar, which offered a nice selection of gourmet, loose-leaf, and cold teas. I’d even gotten a few antique teapots from the Wild and Whimsy Antique Shop, which happened to be the first shop on the boardwalk. If a customer came in and wanted a pot of hot tea, I could fix it for them, or they could fix their own to their taste.

I heard a knock on the window. From the outline of the silhouette, I knew exactly who was trying to wave me over.

Loretta Bebe.

“What on earth is she doing here at this hour?” Bunny glanced back.

“I don’t know.” I walked over to the door and decided to just flip the sign to Open. If people were milling about, I reckoned I better serve them. “I sure hope Birdie is okay.”

“Get in here,” I said to Loretta in a gleeful voice, but I knew something was going on to warrant a visit at this time of the morning. “You’re gonna get frostbite.”

“Are you kidding?” I heard Bunny mutter to herself, only it wasn’t so quiet. “She’s too mean to get frostbitten.”

“Is Birdie okay?” I asked about Loretta’s granddaughter, who had been working for me since she moved in with Loretta.

“Oh yes.” Loretta kept tilting her head out the door.

“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked and looked out.

“Yes. My new helper dropped me off at the steps and is parking the car. I don’t think she’s ever been here, love her heart, and I told you were located in the middle of the boardwalk.”

“She’ll find us,” I assured her and shut the door, since it was so cold out. “What’s going on?”

“I heard, and I’m here.” She tugged on each fingertip of her glove, gracefully slipping her hands out of each one. “I’m here to let you know that I’ll be taking over,” Loretta said in her slow southern drawl, not making it sound as bad as my gut told me it was.

“Taking over what?” Bunny’s interest got piqued.

“The appetizer part of the progressive dinner.” She sounded as nonchalant as though the decision was hers to make. “Now, before you two start in on me”—she slapped her gloves in one hand—“I know I wouldn’t make no fundraiser about any animals. It’s just me, but I like to give money back into our community.”

“The animals are part of our community.” I walked over to the coffee bar and plucked one of the stacked paper cups to fill for Loretta.

When you were the barista of a coffeehouse and had regular customers, you could make their orders in your sleep. Loretta liked her coffee with two light creamers, one vanilla creamer, and two packs of sugar.

“I am not here to argue with you, Roxanne.” Loretta batted her fake lashes a few times before she took the cup from me. Instead of saying, “Thank you for fixing this amazing cup of coffee for me,” she continued, “What’s done is done. The fundraiser is set, and I’ve come to just turn the other cheek. This year.” She let me know in her own subtle way that she would make sure to intervene for next year. “All under the bridge. What we have to deal with is the here and now, and right now I’m stepping up to the plate to offer my services.”

The fundraiser was Aunt Maxi’s, and if Aunt Maxi was here, there’d be no way in H-E-double-hockey-sticks that she’d let Loretta participate.

“Before you poo-poo the idea”—the bangles of her wrist jingled and jangled when she held up her finger to stop me from talking—“I’m going to give you my idea. Now…” She moved past me to walk deeper into the coffeehouse. “I’ve decided to host it at the Cocoon Hotel. I’ve already gotten confirmation with Camey Montgomery to use the appetizers. The only difference is that I’ll be providing the appetizers instead of Babette.”

“I’m gonna need to take some Tums tonight,” Bunny murmured on her way past me back to the coffee bar. There, she cleaned up the leftover sprinkles of sugar that’d found their way out of their packet when I opened them to stir into Loretta’s coffee.

The bell over the door dinged. A frazzled, snow-covered young woman walked in.

“Good.” Loretta called to her. “You found it. Lana, Roxy, Roxy, Lana.” Loretta waved a finger in introduction between us.

“Let me get you a coffee, Lana,” I said to her when I noticed her shivering jawline.

When I reached for another cup, Bunny smacked my hands away.

“I’ll fix it,” she snapped, knowing full well that I’d make another mess she’d feel like she had to clean up.

Poor Bunny spent most of her shift cleaning up after people. I just let her do what made her happy.

“Lana, take off that coat and go stand in front of the fireplace. I’m sure Roxy is about to start one.” Loretta had a way of giving orders indirectly. “I’ll be right back.”

Loretta excused herself to the bathroom.

“Lana, what do you like in your coffee, dear?” Bunny asked Lana.

“How did Loretta take hers?” she asked.

“Don’t you mind Low-retta,” Bunny said, her voice deepening on the end syllable of Loretta’s name.

Loretta Bebe was somewhat hard to deal with in the community. She was a little forward and, well, bossy. She never bothered me any, but she did bother a lot of people. If it weren’t for Loretta’s volunteering, things would probably take a lot longer to get done around Honey Springs. She was not only the president of the Southern Women’s Club but also a big member of the local church, which put you right on top of the society list, even though she did exaggerate about her year-round suntan.

Loretta claimed she was part Cherokee, and, well, that could have been true, since the Cherokee people were indigenous to Honey Springs, but it didn’t coincide with her using Lisa Stalh’s tanning bed a few times a week to keep her skin’s pigment. And if you asked Loretta about it, she’d get all torn up. So we just brushed the subject underneath the rug like most secrets around here.

Funny thing I’d found out since I moved to Honey Springs—those really dark secrets were like dust bunnies. They found their way into the light when they lurked too long in the shadows.

“Black is good.” Lana offered a sweet smile.

“Let me get a fire started.” I had Lana move away from the front of the fireplace so I could throw in a starter log. “Pepper is excited.” I laughed when he ran over and got into his dog bed.

“He’s cute.” She smiled.

“How long have you worked for Loretta?” I started some chitchat while the flame took.

Bunny walked behind the counter and tried to secretly write a text message on her phone. She wasn’t foolin’ me any. I’d bet she was texting Mae Belle Donovan, her partner in crime.

“A few weeks. She keeps me on my toes.” Lana rubbed her hands together. “I’m there to cook and clean up a bit. She’s so busy with all her volunteer work, and now she’s offered to make the cheese balls.”

She abruptly stopped talking when the handle of the bathroom door jiggled as if Loretta couldn’t get it open.

“I bet she has.” Bunny’s flat voice and ticked-up brow made Lana smile even bigger. “What are y’all doing out so early?” Bunny handed Lana a cup of coffee.

“She put a call in to the owners down at the Wild and Whimsy about a piece missing from the Christmas china she’d bought from them. They told her they found it in another box and were holding it for her.” Lana sipped on the coffee and took a seat on the hearth, giving me just enough space to lay a few of the seasoned pieces of firewood on the starter log.

“Where’s my cup?” Loretta had joined us again, this time without her coat. She tapped her maroon fingernail on her big-faced watch. “I’m expected at Wild and Whimsy when they open, so we need to make this a quick chat.”

“We are chatting?” I asked and glanced up at Bunny, who was pointing to where Loretta had set her cup down previously.

Bunny snarled and rolled her eyes.

“I know that your aunt is going to be all sort of, well, let’s just be honest, shall we?” Loretta eased down on the edge of one of the couches, crossing her legs at the ankles like a good southern woman would sit.

“Nothing but around here,” I said, giving the fire a little stoke with the poker.

“You and I both know Maxine has her opinions of me, and that’s all fine and dandy, but she’s going to have to put those out of her way for the good of the community. We need someone to take over the appetizers, and I’ve stepped up to the plate.”

“Did Maxine ask you to do anything for the progressive dinner?” Bunny asked a question we all knew the answers to.

Loretta’s shoulders peeled down from her ears, her head tilted and her face flat when she looked at Bunny.

“Maybe she wants you to enjoy it,” Bunny suggested. All of us in the room, including Lana, knew the truth. Again, we were sweeping it under the rug, so to speak.

Here was the strange part. Bunny seemed to be taking up for Aunt Maxi, which told me she didn’t want Loretta to do the appetizers either. I snickered.

“Anyways, I just wanted you to know that I’ve once again saved the event.” Loretta was also good at taking credit where it wasn’t hers to take. Her quirks were very entertaining to me. Not so much to Aunt Maxi.

“I guess I’m not sure where our visit this early comes in?” I asked.

“Honestly, Roxy.” Loretta uncrossed her ankles and sighed, carefully putting the mug on the coffee table in front of her. “I’m going to need you to back me up because I’m sure when Maxine Bloom hears that I’ve had to save her once again, she’ll be a little perturbed.”

“And you think I can calm her down if she is? Then you don’t know her too well.” I snickered, knowing Aunt Maxi would fume once she got word, and trust me, she was going to get word before the sun popped up in about an hour and a half.

The faint sound of a ding caused Pepper to lift his head.

“The ovens are preheated. I’ve got to get some items cooked before we really open.” It was my way of excusing myself.

“We have to get going anyways. Beverly is going to meet us down there so I can get that platter for one of my famous cheese balls.” Loretta stood up. “Lana.”

“Thanks for the coffee and the warm fire. I’ll be back.” Lana helped Loretta with her coat.

“I hope you do.” I felt sorry for Lana. She was at Loretta’s mercy.

Bunny and I walked them over to the door.

“From what I hear, Loretta can’t keep a helper. How long do you think that girl will last?” Bunny asked.

“Maybe Lana will last. She’s got a little gumption. I do know one thing.” I watched out the door as Loretta and Lana hurried down the boardwalk. “Aunt Maxi sure is going to be mad.”

“Mmm-hmmm, she sure is. And I thought this was going to be a good day.” Bunny sighed, breathing into her coffee mug before she took a sip.

Unfortunately, Bunny was right. I could feel the chill in my bones.

Normal Gazette Editorial ~ Editor in Chief, Violet Rhinehammer

I shivered at the thought someone would even think that way. But I’ve learned that if I could think it, someone else had already done it. When it came to greed, money, or jealousy, people would stop at nothing. It didn’t matter about their morality.

“It has been brought to my attention from various citizens that the lines down at the courthouse for all the branches of government has been a longer wait than usual. What some considered a social hour while going to get their driver’s license renewal or sheriff’s inspection for their new vehicle, has turned into a couple of hour wait time with no socializing to be had. In fact, the growing population in Normal has the citizens concerned. One concerned citizen stated that when he approached the Mayor about what the planning and zoning was going to do about the new subdivision being built by Rod Blair or Blair Builders, the Mayor just smiled at him and told him economic growth was good for Normal.

Economic growth good for a national park? That should be the question posed to Mayor Courtney Mackenzie when in fact land development only creates more of an environmental issue when it comes to the stability of the mountains, cliffs, caves and trails the park was built around. If all of those are compromised and taken away, why would anyone want to come visit Normal for the outdoor vacation they have embraced?

These are questions we here are the Gazette are working on for you, our loyal readers of the Normal Gazette. Stay tuned. Editor in Chief, Violet Rhinehammer.”

_____________

Whooohooo!! Be sure to catch up on what Violet is doing in this week’s release of JACKETS, JACK-O-LANTERN, & JUSTICE!

I have always found secondary characters are just as important as the sleuth. The main sleuth really can’t be the quirky character for me. It’s the secondary characters I love to throw in the side of quirky.
In #acamnperandcriminalscozymystery I have a few side quirky characters!
Here is a fun character post from Channel Two’s very own Violet Rhinehammer!
Let me know in the comments one thing you LOVE about Violet for a chance to win ONE of five $5 Amazon gift cards!

Blossoms, Barbeque, & Blackmail Cross Stitch

Thank y’all for loving these cross stitch patterns of my covers! If you need one you don’t have, please comment below or you can scroll through the categories on the right and find the cross stitch tag.

Grab the pattern here!

Blossoms, Barbeque, & Blackmail Chapters 1-3

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

“Fifi, get back here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Adolescent” was used very loosely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blissful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You aren’t?” I looked at her belly.

“Goodness, no!” She overexaggerated.

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

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

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

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

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

My posture slumped, slightly.

 

Chapter Two

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

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

I didn’t.

I kept that lip shut tight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Including worms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” I questioned.

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

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

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

“I won’t be late,” I assured her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immediately, my shoulders slumped.

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

“I will kill you.”