by Nora LeDuc
Murder suspect Thomasina (Tommie) Murphy gambles on her childhood friend, an unproven, smart PI, to clear her name and bury her secrets.
by Nora LeDuc
Murder suspect Thomasina (Tommie) Murphy gambles on her childhood friend, an unproven, smart PI, to clear her name and bury her secrets.
CHRISTMAS at the EASY BREEZY IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON AND AT WALMART.COM.
“Hold on!” Darcy Malone clenched the steering wheel and slammed on the brake, but nothing stopped her skid into the four-foot snowbank.
The right bumper of her Volkswagen thudded against the frosty mound. A jolt rippled through her. She sat frozen. The rustle of falling flakes grew in her ears. Slowly, the fear cleared from her brain.
She released a breath of relief, and the cramp in her neck eased. Darcy glanced at her daughter in her rear child seat. “Eve. Are you okay?”
“That was fun,” Eve exclaimed in her squeaky voice. Her pink jacket was halfway off her shoulders, and cracker crumbs spotted her purple shirt.
Only a five-year-old would declare an auto accident fun, Darcy thought. “Luckily, I was driving slower than a turtle.” They were safe. That was what counted.
And if Darcy’s GPS was correct, they’d landed in Tuckaway Valley in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The town where her mother grew up. Soon, she’d meet her mom’s side of the family. Someday, this might be her home for the holidays.
She’d spent nearly three decades wishing she had a house full of relatives for those big and little celebrations. Her dream was about to come true. She had ten days to impress them.
Despite her doubts and the likely fender bender, a small thrill rose in Darcy’s chest. She already imagined upcoming gatherings. Eve running around, giggling by the fireside. Everybody asking Darcy for her eggnog recipe. The one drink she vowed she would someday attempt to make from scratch.
“Can I get out?” Eve asked.
“Let me look.” Darcy shifted into park and cut the engine. She unbuckled her seatbelt and stretched over to the passenger-side window. At least, they were parked under a streetlight. With her bare hand, she wiped the condensation off the cool, damp glass. She squinted and tried to make out the details of a building in between the falling flakes. About six feet away, the red letters of a neon sign shone through the sheet of white. DINER.
The pitter-patter of wet flakes smacked against the windshield. In the overheated car, the odor of Cheerios permeated the interior. Darcy’s stomach growled. Besides snacks and potty breaks, they’d done little other than travel. “I spy food ahead. Supper is calling us.”
“Yay.” Eve clapped her hands. Her mittens, snapped to her jacket cuffs, flapped in the air.
Darcy rolled her shoulders, stiff from today’s ten-plus-hour drive and the stress of playing “guess if we’re on the road or not.” Not the best start to her two-week vacation. The Nor’easter had surprised meteorologists and Darcy by arriving a day earlier than predicted. It was a relief to be safe. She couldn’t wait to stand on the ground where her parents had met.
She wished she had more memories of them. She was five when her mother and father passed away in a car accident. Her dad’s distant Uncle Frank had taken her to live with him. A confirmed bachelor, he was the last member of the Malone line. He had raised her with the help of nannies and a series of girlfriends. Most of them had drifted out of Darcy’s life.
Uncle Frank had told her little about her parents except that they had run off to marry when Darcy’s grandmother disapproved of her daughter’s future spouse. Mother and daughter never reconciled. Darcy often wondered why.
“Mommy, I want a grilled cheese.”
At the sound of Eve’s clear, steady voice, Darcy swallowed and the tension flowed out of her. She shifted around to face her. “The snow gods are watching over us. We can walk over to that restaurant.”
“Eat!” Eve’s hand flew up in her eagerness.
Before Darcy uttered that magic word “wait,” her daughter was out of her seat. The kid was too expert at escaping those child restraints.
“I like snow.” Eve’s wide blue eyes glimmered with happiness. She pressed her forehead to the window to stare outside.
“I’m glad you approve of the frosty stuff cause there’s lots of it. Those boots will get a workout today.”
“C’mon. Let’s go.” Eve scooped up her well-worn toy, Bunny, from her booster chair.
Darcy climbed out. Luckily a plow must have passed not too long ago. The cold flakes chilled her feet in her knee high black boots. The wind whipped her skirt around her legs. Tingles of excitement raced through her until she stepped away and glanced at the spot on her car that had landed in the bank. She couldn’t be certain of the damage until she pulled out and got a good look.
Darcy flipped the back of the seat down and leaned in to help her daughter, who held her green stuffed animal. Giggling, Eve pushed off and leapt into her mother’s arms.
Together, they rounded the front of the classic red VW. Darcy couldn’t complain about the auto. She’d bought it off Craigslist the day before they left New York. The small engine had chugged through the blizzard like a bulldozer.
“Are we there?” Eve tilted her head back for a glimpse, causing her hood to slip off and the icy sleet to hit her cheeks. She squinted and turned her cheek into her mom’s jacket.
“We’ve only gone six feet. Besides, nothing stops the Malone girls. Does it?”
Eve recited the last line of their motto. “You and me.”
At the entrance, Darcy placed Eve down. A lit sign in the window grabbed her attention. “We’re at the Easy Breezy Diner.” She pointed. “Nice wreath on the door.”
A poster advertising Midnight Merriment was taped underneath the decoration. She read the flyer out loud.
“Come to a Family-Friendly Celebration on December 23, Downtown Main Street, 5pm to Midnight. Enjoy Sleigh Rides, Music, and Food. New Discounts on Store Items Every Hour.”
“Do they have toys?” Eve asked.
“I don’t know. Sounds like a mini fair. That’s ten days from now. We might be gone by then, but we’ll find out about this Merriment.”
A bell jingled as they entered. She and Eve stopped on the large welcome mat. Darcy scanned the dining room and assessed the business as her Uncle Frank had taught her.
Yes, thanks to Uncle Frank, she had money to pay her bills. Two months ago, he’d surprised Darcy by marrying and becoming the devoted stepfather and grandfather to his wife’s children and their offspring. Now he spent all his free time with his new family or studying his stock profits and bank accounts. That’s when Darcy became certain she’d go after her dream and find her mother’s family. Who would have thought that a week after she started her online search cousin Eddie would pop up on her screen?
Eve moved restlessly next to her. Darcy pushed away the thoughts of her uncle to examine the diner. Quaint and charming were her first thoughts. It was just like the restaurant she imagined eating at with her mom’s relatives. No customers, but there was a blizzard of course. The eatery contained a long counter with six wooden stools and enough red and white Formica tables to serve thirty to forty people an hour. At least ten to fifteen dollars a plate––
“Hello. You out walking in the snow?”
At the end of the counter, stood a rangy man wiping his hands on a beige hand towel. He greeted them in a welcoming voice that made her want to kick off her boots and settle in one of those red-cushioned metal chairs with him next to her. His straight dark hair tumbled over his forehead—a little overgrown by Manhattan standards. But she wasn’t in the city. If she needed another reminder, she had only to consider his clothes. He was dressed in jeans and a denim shirt. Was he a waiter or the cook who had stepped out from the behind the stove for a break? Whoever he was, his friendly manner drew her into the room.
“Are you?” His coffee-brown eyes filled with curiosity as he focused on her.
“Out for a stroll?”
He was good-looking, no denying it. All right, clear your mind. You’d think you never saw a man before. “If you call wading knee-deep through snow a walk, yes, we are. I caught your glowing sign through the storm.” She whirled to the window and back, suddenly feeling foolish for pointing out the obvious. She ran her fingers through her hair while she sought a topic that would show she possessed a brain.
“Yeah, we’re a breakfast and lunch place, really. Last meal served by two in the afternoon. During the storms, I keep the coffee on for the plow guys. Figured if any brave souls were out, they could stop in, too. And here you are. Sit down. I’ll bring the menus.” He grabbed a couple off the countertop.
“One is fine.” She stomped her feet on the welcome mat to shake off the clinging snow and to give herself a second to gather her composure.
Eve copied her. They crossed the black and white patterned floor to the nearest table and took off their coats. Darcy hung them on the back of the chairs and drew out a seat for Eve. Her daughter climbed up, pulled off her boots, and sat with her legs tucked underneath her.
Their greeter returned and handed the printed list of offerings to Darcy. Over his casual clothes, he wore an apron. “I’m Leo, and I’ll take your order on this wintry December day.” He fished out a folded navy baseball cap from his overall pocket and plunked it on his head. Next, he dug out a pad of paper and removed a short pencil from behind his ear.
“Hi. I’m Darcy Malone.” She gestured to the love of her life. “This is Eve.”
“I’d like a grilled cheese sandwich,” Eve told him. “Please. With white cheese.”
“Sorry, she’s got a thing about color.” Darcy cruised the food offerings and tried to define the scent of the man hovering by her shoulder. What was it? A cooking spice? The fragrance was so heavenly it made her want to bake, or at least turn on the rarely used oven.
“Not a problem. Would you care for something to drink with your meal?”
“Chocolate?” He raised a brow.
“I guess I should have called that one.” He turned to Darcy.
“I’ll have the same as she ordered except add a few fries to my plate.” She made a sweeping wave with her hand in the air. She inhaled a deep breath and caught the aroma of her favorite beverage. “Is the coffee ready?”
“The beans arrived at the grocery store this morning. Risked my life to beat off the crowds panicking in the aisles before the blizzard hit. Ground them minutes ago.”
“People act the same way in New York when that five-letter word is spoken.
“Storm?” he guessed.
She leaned forward and whispered, “Fresh.” When he wrinkled his forehead, she added, “The beans were fresh.”
He didn’t seem a fan of her humor.
“So you’re from the city?” He stuck his pencil behind his ear.
“Apartment in Brooklyn, but I spend most of my time at work in the Big Apple.”
He took her menu. “Let me guess. This young lady loves to play in the snow, and you didn’t catch the alert that the snowstorm would move in early.”
“You about nailed it.” True, she’d expected a few flakes at the most today.
“I’m five,” Eve declared, picking out the pink and blue sugar packets from a wire holder.
“Well…congratulations. I’ll get your order started in the kitchen. Don’t worry,” he tossed over his shoulder. “I make a mean grilled cheese sandwich.”
“Not too nasty,” Darcy joked.
But he’d disappeared behind a door near the counter.
“Mommy, how many?” Eve pointed to the small sweetener packages she’d arranged.
“Yes.” She shot her fist upward, copying her mother’s exaggerated gesture when Eve got an answer correct. She began rearranging the paper packets into piles.
A series of white tiles above the wainscoting on the far rear wall snagged Darcy’s attention. They were about six inches square with various scenes drawn in black. Some featured a building: town hall, corner store, or a church. One showed children holding hands in front of a school. Another depicted a row of houses with smoke spiraling up from chimneys into the sky.
She’d never seen that kind of decoration before. Different. A sign hanging over them read, “Winter in Tuckaway Valley drawn by the elementary students.” She’d remember that idea for her next restaurant renovation.
Darcy dug her phone out of her purse and scrolled through, looking for a text from cousin Eddie. She found nothing from him. Maybe the service in this mountainous area was poor. Unfortunately, she found one from her ex-husband, Josh. Most likely, he wanted to remind her for the hundredth time that Eve was spending Christmas afternoon and night with him and his new wife, Zareena. She shut off her cell. She prayed the pain leftover from the divorce would disappear someday soon.
The roar of an engine interrupted her musings. In the window, an unusual plow appeared on the street. Yellow lights lit the cab section. A boulder sat on the cargo rear-end as though weighing the vehicle to the ground.
“I see a truck.” Eve stared out the pane.
Darcy waited for the operator to swerve away from her Volkswagen or to lift its blade. It continued on a straight path, pushing the growing accumulation toward her car. She leaped from her seat. They’d never get out until spring. “Oh, no. No!”
Darcy yanked the door open and ran outside to the corner snowbank. “Stop.” She flapped her hands in the air.
A blast of the horn came from the truck. The driver waved as he pushed an enormous mound against her small vehicle and continued onward.
Stunned, she stood staring at her walled-in car. The drifts had risen faster than a New York cabbie’s taximeter.
“You’re not wearing your coat.”
She turned to her stern-faced daughter in the open doorway. Her voice mimicked Darcy’s. She even pointed her finger.
Suddenly Darcy felt the frigid air penetrating her black sweater. “Yeah, I should have put on my jacket.” Rubbing her sleeves, she tramped over to her daughter. “Come on, sunshine. Let’s go wait for our food.”
Goosebumps rose on her skin. She hugged her arms over her chest and walked inside with Eve. Stomping her boots again, she was thankful for the indoor warmth.
“Everything okay?” Their server-chef, Leo, stood a few feet from her.
“Nothing that a sturdy shovel can’t cure. Do you have one I can borrow? My car was plowed in a few seconds ago.”
“Oh, sorry. I thought you were on foot from the hotel or I would have warned you.” He narrowed his eyes as though she’d shaped-shifted into a strange creature. “You drove in this blizzard? Through Hairpin Turn, up on the ridge?”
“I…guess.” Was that unusual? They were in the North Country. “The roads weren’t bad if you went about two miles per hour. There was only us and the town crews, which reminded me how everyone else was staying home. Yeah, easy.” She rolled her eyes. “But we made it. From your expression, I’m glad I couldn’t see how high up we’d climbed. I’m not great with heights. I force myself to drive over bridges.”
“Then, you should be ecstatic you missed Hairpin’s view. The elevation and the sharp curve are tough on the best of days.”
“Ew.” Going back could be rough. She’d worry about it later.
He was studying Darcy from her knee-highs to the top of her hair. Was something wrong? No, her shoes weren’t practical like his work boots, but she didn’t live in New Hampshire. If he worked in Manhattan, his type of footgear meant he was a construction worker, a drug dealer, or a cool rock star.
He was still taking her in. Her cheeks heated. Were they turning red? “You mentioned you should have told me something,” she reminded him to divert his attention.
He met her gaze. “No parking on the streets during a snow emergency. Though we haven’t had a December Nor’easter like this in ten years.”
“I’m so happy I’m here for this one.” Just her luck. “How far is the Grand Mountain Hotel?”
“About a mile. You easily can walk it except in this weather. On foot, it might feel twice that distance. You can leave your car here. Nobody will bother to dig it out to tow.”
She frowned. “Thanks for the words of reassurance. I’m meeting relatives, and they recommended I stay in town.” She allowed the fear she’d pushed to the back of her mind to surface. Had her cousin worried she’d overstay her welcome if she checked into the hotel he ran? Okay, she was overthinking things.
“Any other good news?” she asked.
“I can get you a ride.”
A loud beeping blasted their ears.
“Uh-oh.” Eve said from her chair, re-piling her sugars. “Mommy, are you trying to cook? I smell something burning.”
Darcy turned toward the kitchen where smoke seeped through the crack underneath the door.
“Your meals!” Leo whirled around and ran.
PLEASE DROP IN AND ENTER THE RAFFLECOPTER!
Frankie McKinley’s last three relationships went up in flames. Now she vows to resist the lure of romantic Last Chance Beach and take a break from men. She’ll concentrate on her dream of opening a brick-and-mortar gift shop. Her best friend insists Frankie needs to relax and enjoy life. Have a Fling. But Frankie’s not into casual hookups until the morning her gaze lands on the handsome tourist, Sean Thomas-Michaels. A man she deems fling worthy. Will he agree?
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She must have lost her mind. What was she doing walking on the rail trail late at night? Thick vegetation closed around her, leaving her little choice where to head. She shuddered. They’d been on this endless hike for almost twenty minutes. The pad of their footsteps on the vine-covered ground pierced the quiet that made her stomach churn. Why had she listened to Mr. Wonderful? She knew the answer. He’d talked her into the evening with promises of an epic date with a huge surprise.
Engagement ring, she bet! Yes, she was a sucker for a happy ending. Besides, this whole scene was her fault. She’d been so excited when he’d apologize after two weeks of angry silence.
He’d pleaded for another chance and promised she wouldn’t regret her decision.
Yeah, tonight he’d propose. She gripped her hands together to hide her excitement. Only, she’d never pick this spot for romance. She batted at the insect circling her head. “Hey bug, it’s December in Florida.”
She wrapped an arm around her waist and felt a pair of eyes on her from deep in the bushes. No, she imagined them, right? This wasn’t the old Florida with wild animals creeping nearby. Though teenagers still searched for out of the way places to party, and the homeless sought shelter in the woods. Was this path one of those places? A network of byways crisscrossed the main track. Who or what used them? She stumbled over a root in her wedge heels.
Okay, she was twenty-four years old, an adult. Stay alert. She’d be fine. Damn. He kept striding ahead as though she was a sheep following him. She regained her balance and blew out a breath. He expected her to move along using just the glimmer of the moon like he did? She removed her phone strapped to her arm and tapped on her flashlight app.
Slowing, she debated going onward. Could she convince him to go back? He could be stubborn. If she went alone, how safe would she be? Not very. She kept trudging after him. Suddenly, the flicker of battery powered tapers marked their course. He was trying to make their evening memorable like he’d sworn. In the past, she’d prayed that he’d commit to a life together. Finally, he seemed willing.
Something slithered in the overgrown woods a foot away causing the tall grass to waver to and fro. She stopped dead.
Two feet ahead of her, he paused and faced her. “C’mon. We’re almost there. Don’t you like the candles?” He gestured at them.
She must have frowned because he dropped his outstretched arm to his side. His mouth pulled downward.
Don’t ruin the evening, she told herself. “You did a great job with the candlelight.” She forced a smile and snuck a peek at the undergrowth. Had the snake hiding in the thick foliage left or would it pop out at her?
“We’ve a little way more.” He started off again, detouring onto a narrow path.
“Are you sure we’re not wandering?” Goosebumps prickled her skin. This route looked more for four-legged creatures.
“Don’t worry. I’m not lost.”
She ran a finger under her seashell necklace to ease the sudden tightness around her throat and glanced over her shoulder. Nothing behind them. Please let this be worth it. “Why are we out here again?”
She plodded along. If only he’d speed it up. Then they could go back to civilization.
“I chose a place special to us. Don’t you remember the night we first got together?”
She thought back to that time. They’d met about three months ago at a coffee shop and shared a table. They’d struck up a conversation about their current partners, who were more interested in being without them than being with them. He’d offered her a ride home. She could have walked. Instead, they’d done it in his car in the lot by this trail.
“We parked near here, but we didn’t roam around in the wilderness.” She raised her light and spotted a curve ahead. Would this hike ever end?
“Have faith.” He rounded the turn and stopped in a small, circular dirt clearing. In the center, two lanterns threw off dim rays that disappeared a few feet away into the shadows.
He stood still, watching her face as she paused a foot from him. This must be where it would happen. His gaze jumped around the space before landing back on her. He was anxious. She could see it in his eyes, but the evening would move forward now. He’d propose. She’d snap the pictures, and they’d leave, fast. She couldn’t wait. Her wedding would be better than Prince Harry’s.
She cleared her throat and nodded at the metal lamps. “I’m hoping we’ll do more than admire camping gear.”
“Maybe I got a job at L.L. Bean and wanted to show off our line.”
“Hilarious.” She crossed and uncrossed her arms, wishing he’d get to the point. Yeah, don’t rush it. Everything had to go well now. He seemed more relaxed. She could feel it in his teasing. They’d pick a date once they were in his auto. If the diamond was big, she’d thank him by doing it for ole time’s sake in the parking area.
He kissed her cheek and leaned in to whisper, “I’ve been planning tonight ever since that awful day you broke up with me.”
The tightness in her shoulders eased before she recognized the faint scent of whiskey on his breath. He’d been drinking, but he was nervous, wasn’t he? She couldn’t blame him. Their future depended on her answer.
His tongue flicked out wetting his lips.
Yes, nerves. “That was quite the walk.” She chewed on a fingernail until she caught herself. “I was afraid a panther or wild boar might get us.”
“I’d protect you.” He stepped back. “I promised you a special time.”
The proposal was going to happen. Good thing she’d gotten a manicure today. A diamond would look great with the teal color on her nails.
She’d act surprised when he popped the question. She’d place her hand over her heart and gasp, “Why, this is too quick. We’ve only been together a short time.”
They’d keep their engagement and pictures a secret until she broke the news to her family, and he worked out a few minor details. Excitement rushed through her. Her dream was happening.
He took her elbow and guided her to the center of the clearing. Then, he removed the forest-colored backpack he carried over his long-sleeved ashen shirt. Rummaging inside, he fished out two champagne flutes. He walked into the shadows, and for the first time, she noticed a graying concrete bench on the edge of the darkness. A bottle sat on it.
Champagne! He had planned everything, she thought as he filled the glasses. “You’ve made a decision … about us?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice smooth and low.
Her ring must be in the pocket of those plain black pants or his backpack. She swallowed her doubts and crossed the ground of twigs and crawling creepers. It was now or never.
“You wore my favorite black dress.” He ran his finger over her bare skin edged by the low-cut neckline.
She smiled as shivers of delight darted through her. “You requested it. I chose my favorite jewelry. The shells bring me good luck.” How soon could she snap a selfie? She needed the perfect moment. Maybe she should stand by the lights. Of course, she’d take a photo of him on one knee.
He was pressing a drink into her hand. She wrapped her fingers around the glass stem.
“To us.” He raised his crystal.
She lifted her goblet and sipped the tart warm liquid. Not her favorite, but she wouldn’t let that ruin what was about to happen.
A loud shriek broke the moment. She shuddered. “What was that?”
He shrugged. “Drink up, and we’ll celebrate with my surprise.” He shifted, and his eyes seemed to spark with an odd glint in the lanterns’ glow.
“Leave,” whispered her inner voice. Calm down, she told herself. She gulped her champagne.
He sidestepped out of the lantern’s flame, and his stare returned to normal. He dug out his phone and fiddled with it. Music poured out of it. “May I have this dance?”
“Are you for real? You hate dancing.”
“Tonight is about you.” He held up his hands. “Just don’t yell loudly if I step on your toes.”
Hesitantly, she slipped into his arms. Her nerves were getting the better of her. The tune played on and on. “Won’t someone hear us?” she said as another song started. When would she get her proposal?
“Who would be out here?”
That’s what she wanted to know. When the third tune ended, she’d had enough. “I’m done having fun.” She pulled away from him.
“It’s your night.” His smile widened as he reached into his pocket.
She held her breath. A cloud rolled in front of the moon. Darkness fell around them. Dizziness buzzed in her head. What was wrong with her? Anticipation, that was all.
“I have ….”
His last words blended together, making no sense. Can’t miss the proposal. She edged closer. On and on he talked. Why didn’t he ask the question she’d recognize in any language? She inched toward him until a whisper separated him. She concentrated on reading his lips.
“Special … just for you.” He withdrew a— black cord? She blinked. Was the ring hanging on it? What was he doing?
His glassy eyes gleaming brighter than the lanterns sent an icy nip over her arms. She should leave … but he must have something else. This wasn’t right. He’d failed her again. Nausea spread in the pit of her stomach. “Where’s the ring?”
“Ha! Are you crazy?” he spat out. “Why would I give a bitch like you jewelry?”
Her heart stopped beating as she understood the fury in his expression.
“Don’t come near me. I want to go home.” She backed up and stumbled.
He grabbed for her. His fingers closed over her necklace. She jerked away. The string of shells fell off. With a sob, she darted across the clearing. He pounced and caught her a few feet from him. His arm came down over her throat firm and strong. He pinned her against his chest.
What was he doing? Panicked, she struggled. The pressure increased on her windpipe, cutting off her air. She had to getaway. She reached upward to scratch out his eyes, but he wound his thin black lasso around her neck, tugging tighter and tighter.
Oh-my-God. No. Stop. She gasped, but only gagging noises leaked from her lips.
This couldn’t be happening. Not to her. Desperate, she dug her nails into his hands and clawed at the noose. Please … air.
The cord cut deeper into her skin. She couldn’t breathe. Hel—p. Hel—
Although it’s April, I’m looking forward to a summer happening. My newest book Trail of Secrets is almost ready to visit the story editor. This means we’re reaching the third round before publishing. Stay tuned.