As Callie searches for the truth, signs seem to come from her late aunt through a favorite music box, urging Callie on. Or are they warnings? If Callie isn't careful, she could meet a similar deadly fate amid Melodie's collection.
Praise:"Hughes kicks off her new Keepsake Cove series with a charming locale..."—Kirkus Reviews
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A Fatal Collection
A Keepsake Cove Mystery
By Mary Ellen Hughes
Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd.Copyright © 2017 Mary Ellen Hughes
All rights reserved.
Oh, you're here!" Callie's Aunt Melodie, a pretty, middle-aged woman in a blue shirt dress, ran around the counter of the music box shop to give Callie the best hug she'd had in ages. It felt wonderful.
"How was your drive? Did my directions make sense? Are you hungry?" The questions came rapid fire, giving Callie no chance to even think of answering. Then her aunt stepped back, still holding onto her niece but at arm's length to look Callie over head to toe. It was in such a totally loving way that Callie felt confident that her rumpled clothes and blond hair gone limp from the long, hot drive mattered little. She knew her strong resemblance to her father, Aunt Melodie's brother, still shone through in her slim build, blue eyes, and freckled upturned nose.
"Goodness!" her aunt said. "You've grown up since I last saw you at your dad's funeral in California. You were in college, then. How long ago was that? Eight years?
"Ten," Callie said, aware that her grimace revealed that they weren't exactly great years. Callie had spent a total of three semesters in college before dropping out. Her first bad decision. The second was falling for a struggling country western musician.
"I'm sorry it's been so long, Aunt Melodie. After I moved to Nashville, then West Virginia a couple of years ago, I really thought I could make the drive to Maryland much sooner. The time just, you know, slipped away."
"No worry," Aunt Melodie said, dismissing Callie's words with a loving hand squeeze. "You're here now. That's all that matters."
Callie noticed that her aunt didn't bring up the fact that Hank hadn't come with her. In her more recent emails, Callie had hinted at problems between them. She was hoping that this two day visit to Maryland's Eastern Shore would help clear her mind about what she was doing with her life. Maybe, at twenty-nine, it was time to figure out what she really wanted?
"Come on in," Aunt Melodie said, interrupting Callie's thoughts. "Let me show you around the shop real quick, then we'll head over to the cottage and give you a chance to rest up."
Her aunt had changed little since Callie had last seen her. She must be in her mid-fifties, Callie guessed, but looked and acted much younger, with a trim figure and light brown hair with just a hint of gray. Why had she never married? Had there been any relationships? There was a lot Callie didn't know about her aunt, who'd always lived so far away. Letters and emails were fine, but they didn't tell you everything.
"These are my quick-sale music boxes," her aunt said, waving her hand over a grouping of small music boxes clearly designed for children. The twirling ballerinas, boys or girls posed with praying hands on flower-trimmed pedestals, as well as a pink and sparkly unicorn covered a small table. "They're priced low and appeal to customers who are looking for a gift on their way home from Ocean City. We're right off the main route, you know, for vacationers heading back to Baltimore or D.C. Over here," Aunt Melodie said, leading Callie to the shelves against the wall, "are my music boxes for serious collectors."
Those boxes, Callie could instantly see, were of higher quality and the variety was wider. Her aunt lifted the lids of a huge silver Hershey's kiss, a round pill box, and a ceramic flower-topped box, flooding the shop with music.
Callie laughed with delight. "I thought you'd named your shop House of Melody after yourself. But it really is a house of melody!"
"I simply carried on the family tradition," Aunt Melodie said, smiling. "Daddy — your Grandpa Reed — started it all. He loved music boxes and named me Melodie because of that. He was the one who suggested your name — Calliope — to your mamma and daddy. He always had music on his mind, and Calliope, you know, was the Greek goddess of music."
Callie winced. "I much prefer Callie. But I appreciated — eventually — the sentiment."
Callie felt a twinge of sadness thinking about her parents. She still missed her father, and her mother had recently remarried. Callie liked her new stepfather and was truly happy for her mom, but she was aware of a sense of loss as her mother became immersed in her new life, which included much travel.
The shop's door opened as a plump woman in an ankle length cotton dress came in. "Is this your niece, Mel?" she asked, her face beaming. She turned to Callie. "I spotted the West Virginia license plate on the car out front. Delia Hamilton," she said, taking Callie's hand in both of hers. "Mel's been talking about nothing but your visit for days."
"Delia has the shop next door," Aunt Mel explained. "Collectible salt and pepper shakers."
"Shake-It-Up!" Delia said, naming her shop with a cheery grin. "Do come over when you have a minute."
"Are all the shops at Keepsake Cove one or another kind of collectible?" Callie asked. She remembered her aunt mentioning something about that in one of her emails, but it hadn't fully sunk in.
"Just about," Delia said. "This part of Mapleton is like a collector's mall, except not under one roof. We're a little town within a town."
"Keepsake Cove developed over time," Aunt Melodie further explained. "One or two collectible shops set up first and became hugely popular. That drew more businesses to the area. Before you knew it, just about every shop in the two-or-three block square had become a collectible shop of one kind or another.
"Except for the café," Delia added.
"Right. And the name Keepsake Cove simply evolved — because of the collectible shops, of course, and because of the little bay we back up to, turning the town into a destination."
"What I've seen so far is charming," Callie said, meaning it. "The storefronts look like something out of a Dickens novel."
"Wait 'till you see your aunt's cottage."
Aunt Melodie smiled. "It's not half as nice as yours, Delia. But I am rather proud of it." She glanced at the clock on the wall. "It's just about closing time, so why don't I finish up here and I'll take you over? Want to join us for dinner, Delia?"
"I wouldn't dream of barging in, Mel, but thank you. I hope you'll stop over tomorrow," Delia said warmly to Callie before taking her leave.
"She's a dear person," Aunt Melodie said, as the shop door closed behind her friend, "and a wonderful neighbor. Unlike ... well, we won't get into that now. Let me close up and we'll head out back. I've had a crock pot simmering most of the day, so dinner should be ready as soon as I toss a salad together."
As her aunt got busy behind her counter, Callie wandered about the shop, delighting in the variety and beauty of the music boxes she saw, until Aunt Mel turned the front door lock and flipped the closed sign. She led Callie to a small office at the back, where she stopped at an old desk that looked vaguely familiar.
"Remember this?" Aunt Mel asked. "It was Grandma Reeds."
Callie suddenly remembered the secretary desk, with its drop lid, sitting at one end of her grandparent's living room. She'd loved the many cubby holes, which, as a child, she'd thought were perfect for hiding secret messages.
"It's full of nicks and scratches, but it's the perfect size for this room. And I like being able to lock up a few things in it." To demonstrate, Aunt Mel logged out of her laptop and folded it up. Then she slid the compact computer to the back of the desk and lifted the dropped lid of the desk. She locked the lid with a ring of keys she'd retrieved from a lower drawer, then turned off the lights and led the way out the back door. There she stopped to let Callie take in the view of the cottage that stood about twenty steps away.
Callie saw a greenery-framed little house that whispered — no, cried — "English countryside," to her. All her favorite books sprang to life as she gazed at her aunt's red-painted cottage. A steep-pitched roof hugged a second floor dormer window with a flower-filled window box beneath. A large, multi-paned window sat to the right of a sage green door that was reached by passing under a white, rose-trimmed trellis. Varieties of blooming flowers edged the cottage foundation. All that was missing, Callie thought, was thatching on the roof. "Aunt Melodie, it's wonderful!"
Aunt Melodie smiled. "You should have seen the place when I bought it. A run-down disaster. It's been a loving work in progress for several years. I still have a project or two in mind. Come," she said, stepping onto the brick walk and leading the way, "I have something special to show you inside."
Callie followed, catching the sweet perfume of the roses as she passed beneath the trellis. The bland entrance to her apartment building back in Morgantown came to mind, dreary in comparison, but she brushed that thought away. She had two days to enjoy this fairyland before she needed to return.
Callie stepped through the door and into a blue and white living room as pretty as a piece of Staffordshire china. As she moved to the middle of the room and gazed around, something suddenly swooped down from the top of a bookcase and landed at her feet. Callie screeched and jumped back, falling into a cushioned rocking chair as a flash of gray zipped past her and into the kitchen.
"Jagger!" Aunt Mel scolded. "That wasn't nice! Are you okay, Callie?"
Callie stopped rocking and grinned. "I didn't know you had a cat."
"Jagger thinks it's the other way around. It's his dinner time. He assumes I need daily reminding."
Aunt Melodie followed her cat to the kitchen, and Callie pulled herself up to join them. Jagger sat next to an empty white bowl and blinked benignly at Callie, who saw no remorse in those round eyes for his attack-style greeting. Aunt Mel filled the cat's bowl and watched fondly as he dug in.
"I got him from a shelter," she said. "His previous owner was obviously a Mick Jagger fan. I kept the name when I saw how he strutted around the place like a rock star. Well, now we'll have a little peace for what I first intended to do." Aunt Mel waved Callie back to the living room and to a roll-top desk tucked in the corner. She unlocked the desk top and opened it, Aunt Melody turned to watch Callie's reaction. "Remember this?"
Callie gasped as she recognized the square music box that sat in the middle of the desk. Its polished wood gleamed, showing off a beautiful inlaid design on the lid.
"Grandpa Reed's music box!"
"It was his favorite. Yours too, when you were little."
"I remember him winding it up to play, over and over."
"And you'd waltz around the room —"
"My version of a waltz," Callie said, laughing. "I was pretending to skate."
"Of course you were!" Aunt Melodie said, smiling. "Since the tune is The Skater's Waltz." She lifted the lid, and the familiar music played as a figure of a miniature skater twirled inside.
"Come, skate with me ..." Callie sang softly along until the music finally wound down. She tilted the box, exposing the key beneath. "May I?" she asked. "Grandpa Reed never let me wind it myself."
"It was his favorite music box. He wouldn't let me touch it, either, until he judged I was old enough to be careful. His music box collection, after I inherited it, provided the start-up of my shop. But this one has never been for sale."
"I'm glad you held onto it."
"I was as fond of it as you were. I'll keep it safe, and it'll be yours next."
Callie gazed at the box, as happy to see and hear it again as she was to be with her aunt. Possessing the box for herself, she was sure, lay far in the future. For now, it was wonderful simply to know it was in good hands and treasured.
* * *
Callie woke the next morning, uncertain for the moment where she was. Then she saw the sun peeking through the muslin curtains at the dormer window as it brushed the taller blooms in the flower box below, and she smiled. Aunt Mel had insisted on giving up her room to Callie, claiming she had a little work to do in the guest bedroom that doubled as her home office.
Callie stretched and gazed around, taking in the pretty watercolors on the walls that echoed the greenery outdoors. Her puffy comforter fairly floated above her, adding to the airy lightness of the room. Aunt Mel's touch shone in every detail.
They had spent hours talking the evening before, closing the gap of years between them easily and making Callie wish she'd visited very much sooner. Maybe today she'd bring up her concerns about her future. Hank or no Hank, that was the question. Or part of it. But for now, she thought as she pulled herself up to a sitting position, coffee was the question.
A glance at the bedside clock told her it was seven-thirty, and Callie listened carefully for sounds that her aunt was awake. All was silent, so she eased out of bed and tip-toed to her door as she wrapped her robe around her. She was surprised, then, as she stepped into the hall, to see the door to the guest room open and the bed rumpled and empty. Aunt Mel must be up. However, after Callie trotted downstairs, she found the lower rooms unoccupied except for Jagger pacing near his empty bowl.
"Didn't get your breakfast?" Callie asked. She checked through the window, expecting to see her aunt in the garden, but all she saw were scampering squirrels and chickadees. She hesitated, but after Jagger began mewing and looking pointedly at his bowl, she found a box of cat food and shook some out for him. When he dug in, obviously hungry, Callie felt uneasy. Aunt Mel wasn't one to neglect feeding her pet. Callie hadn't spotted any note to explain a hasty departure, but she shrugged. Aunt Mel must have had a good reason to run out and most likely would be back in minutes.
Still wanting that coffee, Callie set up a pot to begin brewing, then went back upstairs to get dressed, listening with one ear the whole time for sounds of the front door opening and her aunt calling out cheerily. When that didn't happen by the time Callie returned to the kitchen, she began to feel anxious. But, she told herself, Aunt Mel could have simply gone in to her shop. Deciding that must be the explanation, Callie filled a mug and carried it with her out the door to head over there.
It was a beautiful morning, and Callie breathed in the fresh air tinged with rose perfume. She stepped carefully along the brick walkway that was wet with dew until she reached the back door of the shop. When she tried the knob, it turned easily, and Callie smiled with relief. She had guessed right. Her aunt must be inside.
"Aunt Mel?" Callie called as she entered the shop's office. It was dim, and she could see that the shop beyond was also dark, which seemed odd. "Aunt Mel?"
Callie froze as a feeling of dread washed over her. She tried to shake it off, telling herself she was being silly. Aunt Mel simply hadn't turned on the lights for whatever she'd come over to do. Still, Callie stayed in place, unwilling to go further. Why wasn't her aunt answering her?
She tried one more time. "Aunt Mel?" When all she got back was the ticking of a wall clock, she forced herself to move forward.
Callie first saw the pale hand, outstretched on the floor. Then the pushed-up sleeve of a blue robe. When she saw her aunt's face, eyes open and mouth slack, lying in a pool of dark red blood, Callie screamed.
She'd forgotten she was holding a mug of coffee until it went crashing to the floor.CHAPTER 2
Delia came running within moments at Callie's screams. White faced, she checked for signs of life in her friend, then hustled Callie out as she called 9-1-1.
"There's been a bad accident," Callie heard her say. A few more words of explanation, then a shaky, "No, I don't think so." Callie understood what that meant. Aunt Mel was dead. She sat numbly in the back of Delia's shop, motionless except for her shivers, and waited.
There were sirens, of course, followed by streams of countless people, both official and onlookers, then endless questions from all. Finally, after what seemed like hours, everyone around her seemed satisfied.
"Accident," they all concluded. It was all so overwhelming that Callie wasn't able to think, so she nodded automatically without really agreeing. Aunt Mel was dead. That was all she knew for sure.
Eventually things around her calmed. Delia's shop emptied, and she asked Callie if she'd like to stay with her that night. "I imagine you'll want to go home for a few days before the funeral."
Funeral! Callie hadn't even thought that far. "I don't know. Everything's been so ..."
Excerpted from A Fatal Collection by Mary Ellen Hughes. Copyright © 2017 Mary Ellen Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd..
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