Stilettos and Scoundrels, a Presley Thurman cozy mystery.
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I turned the radio up as loud as it would go letting the music wash the stress away as I headed down the highway the last few miles to my parents’ home in Hunter’s Hollow. The farther away I got from the exhaust-filled smell of the city and the closer I got to the green, rolling countryside, the happier and more relaxed I felt.
After yesterday’s drama of losing my job, I was grateful for the opportunity to spend a few days at my childhood home. I’d fallen asleep on a broken heart but awoken in a good mood, and I could only explain that by admitting to myself that I hadn’t been happy as vice president of human resources at McLaughlin in a long time. Running my mom’s flower shop while my parents went on a cruise to Alaska smelled like fresh opportunity to me, so it was the perfect time for a trip home. At the very least I would get the chance to set my thoughts in order and finally determine what exactly I wanted to do with my life now that I was free. Though losing my steady income was less than ideal on a practical level, my subconscious had clearly already gotten over that. I was looking forward to a fresh start.
The digital clock display caught my eye, and I pressed the gas to speed up a little. Late again. My mom would have something to say about that, when— HOLY MOLY! I slammed on the brakes and my car skidded sideways, coming to a shuddering stop about two inches from a cow. My heart was pounding. This was why I lived in the city. You might have to watch out for drunks and crazy people wandering around the streets, but traffic didn’t move fast enough for it to be much of an issue and you never, ever ran into a cow. My heart thudded and my hands shook. My poor Kia would have crumpled around the cow like an accordion if I had hit her. The cow didn’t even seem fazed by the near miss. She looked at me through the windshield with her big brown eyes as if to say, What? Is there a problem?
I sat there for a second longer, taking a few deep breaths and waiting for my heart rate to return to normal while willing the cow to get the heck out of the middle of the road. The shoulders out here were pretty much nonexistent, so there wasn’t enough room to go around without going farther into the ditch than I wanted. I had a feeling if I tried, I would get stuck. Where had this thing come from, anyway? The cow quit staring at me and ambled the rest of the way across the road. Thank goodness there wasn’t any other traffic or there would have been quite a backup. Though out here in the country, people were usually patient in these kinds of circumstances. Feeling a little more composed, I started to laugh. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends in the city about this. They would never believe it. I should have taken a picture but when I’d slammed on the brakes, my phone had flown off the console to the passenger footwell and it wasn’t worth unbuckling to reach it.
I pressed back on the gas to move on down the road, and immediately slammed on the brakes again. A puppy had replaced the cow in the middle-of-the-road scenario. What was going on here? It was like a countryside conspiracy to make me even later getting to my parents’. There weren’t any other cars around. I could only see one farmhouse up ahead, and the last one I had passed about a half mile ago. Houses in this area were few and far between. I put the car in park and left the engine idling while I strolled over to get the puppy, since he, or she, was plopped down right on the yellow line. That was probably a warm place to lie, but not the safest. Had I not already been driving slowly from the cow incident, I might not have even seen the little guy. I shuddered at the thought of accidentally hitting a puppy. Or any animal, for that matter.
“Come here, little buddy,” I called, crouching down and holding my hand out so it could sniff it. The puppy looked at me for a second and then, not scared at all, licked my hand furiously. I started laughing and scratching its belly, double-checking to make sure no cars were coming. Now that the puppy had rolled over, I could see it was a she.
“Where did you come from, huh? Where do you belong?”
She was fawn with a black mask and so cute. I wasn’t a dog expert, so had no idea what breed she might be, but by her size, she looked maybe a few months old. I scooped her up and put her in my car, a little surprised at how heavy she was. She was definitely solid, not fragile at all. My parents—make that my mother—weren’t going to be thrilled to see me show up with a puppy, but I couldn’t leave her out here alone.
The puppy turned around once and promptly lay down in the passenger seat, closed her eyes and fell asleep.
My bringing stray animals home was fairly common. At least it had been when I was growing up. Now, at almost forty, my pet-rescuing days were behind me. Or so I’d thought.
I pulled into my parents’ driveway and a weight lifted off my soul. As I took in the sight of my childhood home, memories of being a kid flooded back. Walking to the school bus had always been a chore. In bad weather, it had seemed to take forever to get to the protection of the little dollhouse-like bus stop shelter my dad had built to shield me while I waited. And when I was late for the bus, which was often, I’d had to run down the entire length of the driveway, screaming all the way, so the bus wouldn’t leave me behind.
My parents, Clark and Sue Thurman, had lived in the same two-story white farmhouse for over forty years. They had met in Evanston, Illinois, where they had grown up, and when they married had traded life in the city for a more peaceful existence in the country.
As my car rolled to a stop in front of the detached garage, my parents walked out onto the wraparound porch. I stepped out of the car as my dad walked up and gave me a big hug. I smelled comfort in my dad’s tried-and-true Old Spice cologne.
“We’re so glad you’re here,” he said, kissing me on the cheek. Noticing the puppy still sleeping in the passenger seat, he just shook his head and smiled, but didn’t say a word. He knew my mom would have plenty to say. He grabbed my hot-pink suitcase out of the back of the car, and I grabbed the rest of my stuff after getting the puppy and putting her on the ground.
“Me too, Dad,” I replied, realizing how much I’d missed him. My dad and I had always had a close relationship and he had played the role of mediator between me and my mom on many occasions. My younger brother Jesse got along great with our mom, but my relationship with her was often contentious. I felt she was too critical and thought I couldn’t do anything right. The normal mother-daughter dynamic, at least in my family. I’d learned over the years to let what my mother had to say roll off my back. Mostly.
“It’s been too long since the last time you were here. I know you’re busy with your life in the city, but we’re not that far away,” he chided gently.
“I know, I know. Mother never fails to remind me each time we talk.”
“Only because she misses you.”
“It’s about time you got here,” my mother snapped at me. “You said you’d be here around two, and it’s going on three. We were worried sick. And I still need you to deliver that flower arrangement.”
My mother ran a very successful business and prided herself on customer service. Obviously, I understood that. If you wanted your business to be successful, customers had to be a priority, but sometimes I felt she took it over the top.
Maybe that was why owning a business had never appealed to me. It really was a twenty-four seven job and always so much to worry about. My mother had purchased Petal Pushers, a name that was a cute play on words of the 60s era name for crop pants, from the previous owner when she’d been ready to retire, back when I was still in high school. I earned my first paycheck working in that flower shop. It was also my mother’s first, and only, job since moving to Hunter’s Hollow. She lived and breathed that place.
My mother gasped. “And what is that?” She stared at the puppy that was running into the house, trailing behind my dad, her focus momentary taken off my being late.
“Aren’t you just happy I’m here, Mother?” I gave her a peck on the cheek and ignored her look of horror at my new animal friend. My mother was really a softie when it came to animals; she just liked to put on a big front at first. “You look great.”
Her auburn hair was pulled back in a chignon, and she was wearing minimal makeup—just a swish of pale pink lipstick and mascara. My mom had a knack for being able to throw an outfit together at the last minute and look fabulous. I, on the other hand, often felt scattered and only half-pulled together on a good day. My mother even dressed nicely when she was working at her flower shop, and she never seemed to get dirty.
“Since when do you have a dog?” she asked abruptly, not falling for my attempt to change the subject.
“Well, I don’t exactly have a dog. Yet. But if I can’t find out who she belongs to I think I’m going to keep her. Can you get the word out, Mom? Maybe see if anyone might know of a missing puppy”?
“I’ll see what I can find out,” she said with a heavy sigh.
With that, she stomped back in the house, not even waiting for an answer. I looked to my dad, who had just walked back out, for help and he just shrugged his shoulders, his eyes twinkling with laughter.
“Glad you find this so amusing, Dad,” I grumbled.
I caught the flash of my smile in the reflection off a hallway painting and it only made me grin wider. My childhood home smelled like freshly baked muffins, warm summer nights and the comfort of friends, even though I had been here all of five seconds, had already been yelled at, and would leave again in a few minutes to make the flower delivery I’d promised to help my mother with. I didn’t mind helping her out, though I’d never want to be in the flower business full time. I didn’t like flowers all that much. Yet, the delivery part was fun because people loved getting flowers, so it was a happy occasion.
I got the puppy settled in the laundry room with an old blanket, and gave her water and some hot dogs I’d found in the refrigerator, which she scarfed down in ten seconds. I made a mental note to stop at the store for dog food after the flower delivery.
“Where’s this flower arrangement I need to deliver?” I asked my mother, who was now busy with some packages of food in the freezer.
“It’s in the cooler in the garage. You’re taking it to Willow Château and delivering it to Senator Daniels.”
“Ohh, I like that place, pretentious name and all. Is Abigail still the manager?”
The Willow Château was a small hotel that had been around forever. When it was sold a few years ago, the owners changed its name from Thompson’s Place to the Willow Château and called it a boutique hotel. I had to admit as pretentious as the owners seemed to be, they’d invested a lot of money in updates both outside and inside and were doing a great business; at least from what my parents told me. They said people loved the place.
“Yes, she is. Make sure you take them directly to his room. Don’t hand the flowers over to anyone; you never know if they’ll actually make it.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said and refrained from rolling my eyes. My mother was a little neurotic when it came to the security of her flowers. “I’ll be back in thirty. Please check on the puppy,” I said and shut the door before she could protest.
I grabbed the flowers out of the spare flower cooler my mom had in the garage and secured the arrangement in the passenger seat. Hopping over to my side, I got in and pulled out of the driveway, hoping that Abigail would be working when I got there. I hadn’t seen her in forever. Probably not since our ten-year class reunion.
The Willow Château was only about ten minutes away—clear over on the other side of town, if that gave you any indication of how small Hunter’s Hollow was—and in no time I was pulling into the parking lot.
There was a lot more activity than normal. Some sort of security was stationed at the front and a bevy of black Lincoln Town Cars were cluttering the parking lot. Tom Daniels was just a senator, not the president. Was this really necessary or did Tom and Helen just like to look important? Tom Daniels’ wife, Helen, had grown up here, and the family was by far the wealthiest in town. Surrounding towns too, if you believed the gossip mill. Neither of them failed to take the opportunity to remind everyone in town of that either, not winning themselves any awards for niceness.
Dang. The young receptionist behind the registration desk was not Abigail, but I’d be watching over Petal Pushers for a month. I would surely catch up with my friend later.
I walked through the updated lobby to the reception desk.
“Hi,” I said brightly, the opposite of how I felt. “I’m from Petal Pushers, and I have a delivery for Senator Daniels.”
“Room 220. Go right on up,” she said in a bored voice as she flipped through a magazine. I found it a little surprising that it was that easy. If there was a need for security outside the hotel, why was a random flower delivery person allowed to just go to his room? But who was I to question?
I headed over to the staircase and took the stairs up, walking to the end of the hall where room 220 was located. But when I got to the door, I stopped, my hand poised to knock but not making contact.
The door was ajar just a little. I hesitated, not wanting to interrupt Senator Daniels if he had company.
“Hello? Flower delivery for Senator Daniels,” I called out. I pushed the door open a little wider, thinking maybe he was on the phone and couldn’t hear me. “Hello,” I called out again. I took one more step and saw the senator across the room, at the desk in the corner. He was slumped over the desk, and it didn’t look like a very comfortable position to take a nap. The hair on my arms stood on end. Something didn’t feel right here. I swallowed the scream building right behind the knot in my throat and suppressed the urge to flee.
As quietly as I could, I set the flowers down on the side table and walked in. “Senator Daniels, are you okay?” I asked in barely more than a whisper as I reached him. I put my hand on his shoulder to give him a slight nudge. Maybe he was just a hard sleeper. But then the nudge threw him off balance and he toppled to the floor. I looked at him—and the stiletto heel of a shoe stuck in the side of his neck—in horror.
He wasn’t a hard sleeper.
He was dead.
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