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All Natural Murder
By Staci McLaughlin
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Staci McLaughlin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA gust of warm, dry air swept onto the porch step and swirled around my sandals, tickling my toes and sending a shiver up my calves as I tilted my head for a good-night kiss.
A shriek sounded from inside the house, followed by a bang. I jerked my head toward the front door, recognizing the sound as coming from my sister, Ashlee. I turned back to Jason, noticing how the touches of gold in his reddish-brown goatee glinted in the porch light.
"Everything okay in there?" he asked me.
No way was I letting Ashlee's latest emotional meltdown interrupt my big kiss with Jason. Who knew when our next date might be?
"Nothing we need to worry about."
Jason reached over and tucked an errant chunk of blond hair behind my ear, sending a ripple of excitement down my back. "Sorry your bowling score wasn't any higher tonight, Dana," he said.
I felt my face heat up and hoped it didn't show in the dim light. "The strobe light blinded me. I couldn't see the pins."
"Must have had your eyes closed to score a seventy-four."
"Hardee har har." I just hoped he didn't print my score in the local newspaper. As the lead reporter for Blossom Valley's only paper, he sometimes had to get creative to fill the space. "I'll wear sunglasses next time. Be prepared to quiver in your bowling shoes when I approach the lane with my mighty ball."
Jason moved closer, his ironed Ralph Lauren dress shirt almost brushing the front of my lacy sweetheart top. "You've got me quivering right now."
A smile played across my lips as my hand found Jason's, his long, slender fingers intertwining with mine. "Where were we again?" I closed my eyes and leaned in.
Another bang, this one followed by an undecipherable shout from my sister. The moment evaporated faster than a slushie on a hot summer sidewalk. Whatever Ashlee was mad about tonight, it sounded like a doozy.
I dropped Jason's hand and dug my keys out of my jeans pocket. "Guess I'd better go in."
"Sounds like someone needs help." Jason half-turned toward the door, obviously torn between going in with me and escaping while he could.
"Only a licensed therapist can provide the help that Ashlee needs." I stuck the key in the lock. "Thanks for a great night."
"I'll call you, arrange that bowling rematch." He offered me a wink and a smile with that promise, then stepped off the porch.
I shot a quick glance at his butt before I entered the house. The front hall was silent, save for the ever-present ticking of the grandfather clock. I checked my teeth in the hall mirror and noticed I had spinach lodged over a canine. Great. Maybe Jason had missed that.
A ripping sound off to my left reached my ears, followed by muttering. I walked toward the living room and stopped at the entrance.
Glossy photos were strewn across the tan carpet, most torn in half. Ashlee sat cross-legged in the middle of the wreckage, her normally brushed and styled blond hair, three shades lighter than mine, hanging down from an untidy bun, tear tracks evident on her flushed cheeks.
"Ashlee, what's wrong?" I asked, pretty sure her crisis involved a man. Ashlee went through boyfriends faster than world champion competitive eater Joey Chestnut went through a plate of Nathan's hot dogs.
She lifted her head at my voice, her clenched fist squeezing two halves of a photo. "Bobby Joe is such a pig. He's been cheating on me!"
I raised my eyebrows. Ashlee and Bobby Joe had been dating since they'd met at the cricket-chirping contest back in May. Though I figured their relationship wasn't going to be long-term, I'd assumed it would at least survive through the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. Nobody likes to watch fireworks alone.
"Are you sure? Did Bobby Joe tell you he cheated?"
Ashlee sniffed, her face a portrait of wounded pride. "He told me. Right after I found the evidence, the big coward."
My mind flashed to lace underwear stuffed in the glove box of his truck. Or maybe a bra tangled around a wrench in the oversize toolbox he carried in the truck bed. "What evidence?"
"Text messages." Spittle flew from her mouth along with the words.
I screwed up one side of my mouth, not hiding my doubt. "That's your big evidence? Text messages?"
Ashlee grabbed another picture, this one showing Bobby Joe holding a large striped bass, and ripped it in half with a vicious yank. "I don't need more proof than that, especially when I read about what a great time the tramp had last night and how she can't wait to see him again. You know, I'd heard Bobby Joe cheated on his last girlfriend, but he said he'd grown up."
Great, my sister had been dating a serial cheater. I bent down and gave her an awkward, one-armed hug. "I'm sorry he turned out to be such a jerk. I know you really cared about him."
"Yeah, I guess. 'Course he was starting to be a drag. You can only go four-wheeling so many times." Ashlee shrugged my arm off her shoulder and attempted to smooth down her hair. "It's just that I've never been cheated on before. These things don't happen to me."
I resisted the urge to mention that she dated most men for two weeks or less, not giving them much time to stray, but now didn't seem like the time. "Anything I can do to help?" I asked instead.
"No. I can't believe I started going to the gym to get in shape for that bum. What a total waste." Ashlee stood, photos falling from her lap like tiles from a roof during an earthquake. "I gotta update my Facebook page. Change my status to 'Single.'" She stomped from the room.
I used my hands to sweep the pieces into a pile and dumped them in the wicker garbage can that sat next to the beige and brown floral couch. With my limited number of ex-boyfriends, I had little advice to offer Ashlee. Luckily, her prognosis was most likely a battered ego rather than any actual heartbreak. She'd line up a new boyfriend by tomorrow and forget Bobby Joe's betrayal in a week.
I headed to my own bedroom, pushing Ashlee's troubles from my mind. A smile formed on my lips as I remembered my evening with Jason and stayed there as I drifted off to sleep.
The alarm screeched at six the next morning. I shot an arm out from under the sheet and slapped at the cheap plastic box until I was rewarded with silence. With a groan, I tossed back the covers and stumbled out of bed. I took a quick shower and donned my summer uniform of khaki walking shorts and a navy blue polo shirt with STAFF stitched on the back that everyone now wore at the O'Connell Organic Farm and Spa, a long way from the blouses and skirts of my marketing days at a computer software company.
It had been four months since I'd moved back home after a lengthy stint of unemployment down in San Jose, thanks to a layoff where I worked. With my mother still grieving my father's unexpected death, I'd convinced myself she needed someone around to keep an eye on her. Sure, Ashlee still lived at home, but she was out most evenings and at work the rest of the time. Plus, she might move out one of these days, and then Mom would be completely alone.
The one big downside to living at home was that since my father had died of a heart attack, Mom now insisted that we abolish all processed and sugary foods and stop frying our dinners, which meant no more kids cereal in the mornings, no more fried chicken for Sunday dinners, and no more giant bowls of ice cream during Scream movie marathons. Now it was whole-wheat pasta and poached fish, with fresh fruit for dessert. As if adjusting to life back home wasn't hard enough, I didn't even have any chocolate fudge brownie ice cream to ease the transition. At least not without a disapproving glare from my mother.
Casting aside my musings, I headed for the kitchen to face breakfast. Box and gallon jug in hand, I sat at the oak table under the watchful eyes of the family portraits that lined the wall and swallowed my bran cereal without really tasting it, not that there was anything to taste. I pushed the empty bowl away, gulped my orange juice, and glanced at the clock. Only 6:30. Mom and Ashlee were still asleep. Who knew how long Ashlee had stayed up last night, changing her Facebook status and tweeting about her suffering? She might be in bed for another hour or two, but I preferred to start my day early.
Besides, Esther might need help with the chickens.
I grabbed my purse, locked the front door behind me, and slipped behind the wheel of my Honda Civic. Already, the sun beat down on the roof, warming the car like a hothouse, a precursor to another scorching day. The weatherman called for this heat wave to continue through the July Fourth weekend, but I was keeping my fingers crossed that his satellite was broken and a cold snap was imminent. A girl could dream.
Easing out of the driveway, I waved to Mr. McGowen, who had been tinkering in his yard every day for the last thirty years, and drove the few blocks through the downtown. The owner of the Get the Scoop ice cream parlor was already setting out the patio tables and chairs in front of his plate-glass window, business so booming with the current stretch of hot weather that he'd started opening for breakfast. Only a handful of cars were parked in the Breaking Bread Diner lot, though I knew from experience the place would get crowded as the morning wore on. Having the best omelets in town always guaranteed a hungry crowd. Since there was no commuter traffic, I traveled Main Street in less than a minute and was on the highway, headed for the farm.
When I'd moved home, the Blossom Valley Herald want ads had listed few jobs, exactly zero of them involving marketing. But then Mom had met Esther, owner of the new O'Connell Organic Farm and Spa, at a grieving spouses support group, and Esther had hired me to promote the place, although the job had quickly evolved into a Jill-of-all-trades position. When I wasn't marketing the farm, I helped the maid clean the cabins, the cook serve the meals, and Esther tend to the animals. I was just happy to be employed, something that had been in jeopardy back in May after a guest was murdered on opening weekend; that had almost closed down the farm.
Two months later, with the killer behind bars, the farm and spa was finding its footing again. In fact, all ten cabins were booked for the long weekend, ensuring me plenty of work around the property.
Traffic was light, as it tended to be on Thursday mornings, or any morning for that matter. I took the freeway off-ramp for the farm and bounced down the lane. Time for repaving. I passed the sign for the farm and slowed as I approached the small lot. I parked near the side path that led to the kitchen. A pickup truck with oversized tires and a compact car already filled two spaces.
Sparrows chirped in the nearby pine trees, a melody to accompany the staccato crunch of my sandals on the gravel. I stepped onto the dirt path next to the vegetable garden, admiring the plump Brandywine tomatoes, a deep red against the lush green vines. A cucumber peeked out from beneath a broad leaf. Zennia, the spa's health-conscious and adventurous cook, would no doubt snag that cuke for a lunchtime salad. Little did that vegetable know that its fate was already decided and the end was near.
I wound around the camellia bush, passed the pool, Jacuzzi, and patios, and entered the kitchen by way of the herb garden.
Zennia stood at the counter, layering homemade granola and Greek yogurt in a parfait glass. She straightened as I entered, her long black braid with a few strands of gray sliding over her shoulder and hitting the counter, almost dipping into the yogurt container.
"Morning, Dana." She added a handful of granola to the top of the parfait, then grabbed her honey pot and held the drizzle stick aloft.
I nodded at her dish. "Looks delicious. Wish I hadn't wasted all my stomach room on boring old bran cereal." I grabbed a blackberry from the bowl on the counter and popped the fruit into my mouth.
"Hope you didn't fill up too much. We're having curried lentil burgers for lunch."
My stomach seized. Where did Zennia find these recipes? Torture Cuisines R Us? I forced a smile. "Great." Before my expression faltered, I snatched one last blackberry from the bowl and headed down the hall.
In the office, I plopped down in the desk chair, punched the power button on the computer, and swiveled idly, studying the room as I waited for Windows to load. The wall closest to the door held an overstuffed book case, and extra books were stacked on the faded green carpet. A metal guest chair sat between the book case and the door. Against the opposite wall, there was a wooden filing cabinet under the window and a floor lamp in the corner. Pictures of the farm in earlier years, along with a handful of family photos, filled the walls.
When all the icons had appeared on the desktop, I checked my e-mail, then wrote the day's blog. Today's topic covered the benefits of watermelon, celery, and other foods that could rehydrate your body during a heat wave.
After posting the blog to the spa Web site, I logged onto Facebook and read the latest news. Ashlee had changed her status from "In a Relationship" to "Single," and posted, "Cheaters suck! You stink more than your bad breath, Bobby Joe!!" Sheesh. At least she was being mature about the whole thing.
I closed the Web browser and returned to the kitchen. Two more parfaits had joined the original at the counter. Zennia stood nearby, drying the now-clean blackberry bowl.
"Need help serving breakfast this morning?"
Before she could answer, Esther huffed and puffed her way into the kitchen from the hall, her denim shirt with the embroidered kittens misbuttoned. Her gray curls drooped in the morning heat, and her plump cheeks were flushed.
"Goodness gracious, those ducklings have escaped," she gasped.
"Again?" I said, trying to remember if this was the second or third time this week. The newest additions to the farm, the ducklings weren't the first animals to escape their pen, but they were definitely the most frequent offenders. "Esther, I know you want the guests to see the ducklings the minute they park so they'll be in the right mood for their farm stay, but don't you think those ducks are more trouble than they're worth?"
Esther finished catching her breath. "Sure, they run away a lot, but they're so darn cute. And the kids love them so."
I didn't point out that we'd had no more than three kids stay with us. Besides, she was right: the ducks were pretty cute.
Esther patted my arm. "You're always such a dear, Dana. Would you round them up with me?"
I looked at Zennia to see if she needed my assistance with breakfast, but she waved her hand in a shooing motion.
"Call me quackers, but I'll help," I said.
Zennia chuckled as I walked out the kitchen door,
Esther shadowing me through the herb garden. No little ducks were hiding under the mint leaves. I stopped at the toolshed for a cardboard box, then wandered by the pool area.
The surface of the water was as smooth as the patio tables. I craned my neck to peek under the chaise longues in case the ducks had decided to seek refuge from the summer heat, but the space was empty.
I suspected the ducklings were entertaining the pigs again, but I held out hope they'd still be waddling down the sidewalk and we could intercept them. No such luck. One glance at the pigsty showed little yellow feathers coated in mud and only God knew what else, although I had a pretty good idea.
I placed my hand on the top railing. The fence around the sty was the same style as the slat fence around the pond out front. Three rails with large gaps in between. "Ever think of enclosing the ducklings in a more escape-proof fence? Maybe add a bottom board to keep them in?"
"I couldn't do that to the precious little things," Esther said. "Then they'd feel like prisoners."
"We could give them an hour of yard exercise every day. Isn't that what they do in real prisons?"
Esther tittered. "Oh, Dana, you're a hoot."
I hadn't actually been kidding, but apparently Esther wasn't keen on fencing in her pets. I scanned the area near the gate for the rubber boots that usually sat there, but the boots were missing. Someone had probably left them at the chicken coop or off in the vegetable garden. Those boots had a habit of walking away.
With a resigned sigh, I slipped off my sandals, opened the gate to the sty, and placed one bare foot in the muck. Mud and mystery objects, cool and slimy, squeezed between my toes. I shuddered as I added my other foot to the mixture, ready to catch those fuzzy felons and get out of the pen.
Excerpted from All Natural Murder by Staci McLaughlin Copyright © 2013 by Staci McLaughlin . Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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