Running the family literary business while preparing for her best friend’s wedding, chairing a park planning committee, and getting her rescue cat to bond with her boyfriend’s golden retriever doesn’t leave Allie Cobb much time for crime-solving. But when the guy who stood her up the night of her high school senior prom is killed and dumped in a pile of mulch, Allie’s suddenly the prime suspect.
It’s insulting enough that gambler, drunk, and all-around lowlife Georgie Alonso was found on the site of the memorial park honoring Allie’s deceased father. Now she’s fighting to clear her name and hold off a rush to judgment. But politics, decades-old secrets, and a slew of high-profile suspects make dangerous bedfellows as the eve of the park’s grand opening draws nearer. She’ll have to nab a killer soon, before her storybook life gets a bad ending …
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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Actually, it was the best of times. Full stop. I turned on the coffee maker and wandered into the living room of my apartment. While the machine gurgled away, I looked out the window. The view from my perch on the second floor was incomparable. On this sunny September morning, I could see from the shops of Washington Boulevard below me all the way to the verdant green woodlands of nearby Green Hills State Park.
My tortoiseshell cat, Ursula, better known to one and all as Ursi, bumped her head against my shin and meowed as the aroma of fresh dark roast wafted in from the kitchen. Between an apartment I loved, a job I adored, and a group of family and friends who made me feel welcome and safe, life was good.
After spending almost a decade on my own in New York City, it had taken some time to get used to small-town living. But now, ten months after returning to my hometown to run my late father's literary agency, I'd settled into a routine that was as fulfilling as it was comfortable.
"Ready for breakfast, girl?" I carried Ursi to the kitchen, scratching her ear on the way. I barely had time to pour her food into her Hello Kitty bowl before she attacked her breakfast with the ferocity of a lion feasting on the day's catch. Between the energy she spent on our regular walks around town and her prowling around our spacious living quarters, Ursi had become an eating machine.
Even though I never seemed to fill her bowl enough to satisfy her, she was content in her new, window-filled surroundings as much as I was. On top of that, her status as the only cat in town who took her owner for walks had made Ursi something of a local celebrity.
Despite my best efforts to downplay it, I couldn't deny my status as a local celebrity of sorts, too. It came with the territory of solving the first murder in Rushing Creek, Indiana, population 3,216, in thirty years. I was proud of the work I'd done to solve the case, but all things considered, I would have preferred that Thornwell Winchester, the father of my best friend Sloane, hadn't been murdered.
The memories of those dark times, as I searched for a murderer in the days after my own father's death, still woke me up at night in a cold sweat and probably would for the rest of my life.
Several doors were opened to me during that rough time, though. They were openings I walked through without an ounce of regret, and they led me to where I now found myself — happy, healthy, and living the dream every day.
"What's on today's agenda?" I pushed down the lever on my toaster to warm a blueberry bagel.
Ursi responded by winding herself through my legs and then sauntering off to the living room and settling herself on her perch in front of a window. Evidently, napping, eating, and monitoring her surroundings were the items on Ursi's calendar.
"Another day of guard-kitty duty. What would I do without you?" When the bagel popped up, I spread a thick layer of Nutella on both pieces, filled my Cobb Literary Agency coffee cup, and took a seat at the kitchen table.
I had a jam-packed schedule on this fine Thursday. First up, I needed to finish editing a client's thriller manuscript. I'd been up until three the night before reading it and had sky-high hopes for landing a contract offer from a publisher in record time. After that, Ursi and I needed to go for a walk. Then I was scheduled to spend the rest of the day contacting editors to whom I'd sent proposals. I had five books currently under consideration by various editors and was confident I'd land contracts for all of them.
Ultra-productivity was critical today, because the next four days were filled with activities totally unrelated to my literary agency. Tomorrow, I was scheduled to check in at the under-construction Winchester-Cobb Memorial Park. As chair of the committee overseeing the park's construction, I visited the site every Friday to make sure work was progressing on schedule.
Saturday was set aside to help Sloane finish packing and then move her into my brother Luke's house. She and Luke deciding to cohabitate before exchanging wedding vows wasn't sitting well with my dear mother, but everyone else in town was happy they were getting married.
After Saturday, the only thing on my mind was spending Labor Day with my honey, Brent Richardson, and Sammy, his golden retriever. It was a ninety- minute drive from Rushing Creek to his current workplace in Terre Haute, Indiana. That meant weekends and holidays were pretty much the only time we got to see each other in real life.
"Okay, girl. Let's do this." I bit into the bagel and savored the combination of gooey and crunchy goodness. I wiped bagel crumbs from my mouth to keep them from ending up between the computer keys and opened the thriller manuscript.
Ninety heart-pounding minutes later, I let out a yelp and almost knocked my coffee off the table when there were three rapid, sharp knocks at my door. With a groan, I closed my computer. It wasn't fair that I had to walk away from an amazing story with only fifteen pages to go.
Ursi gave me a meh as she leapt from my lap. She landed on the hardwood floor without a sound and gave me a look over her shoulder as she padded to the door to let me know she expected me to open it.
"Hey, girlfriend," Sloane said when I opened the door. She scooped up Ursi and kissed her fuzzy head. "Oh. Hi, Allie."
"Whatever." I rolled my eyes as my best friend and I shared a laugh.
When we were together, the laughs came easy and often. It was good. I closed the door, and we got comfortable in the living room. Ursi started purring as loud as a lawn mower the nanosecond she got settled on Sloane's lap.
"You sure you don't want a cat of your own?" Ursi loved me in her own mysterious feline way, but she had formed an undeniable bond with Sloane during the days after Thornwell's murder. I'd suggested more than once that Sloane adopt a kitty, all to no avail.
"You know I couldn't betray Ursi like that. Besides, Luke says he's allergic to cats." She scratched my pet under her orange-and-black chin. "So little Miss Ursula gets all my love. Don't you, girl?"
Signaling her agreement, Ursi purred even louder.
My heart warmed at the sight. Sloane was my best two-legged friend, and Ursi was my best four-legged friend. The fact that they were besties made my life, which was pretty great, even better.
"So, what brings you by?" My gaze drifted to my computer. I needed to get back to work. Sloane's reason for stopping by unannounced must have been important, though. She never visited without texting first.
"Brace yourself." With a devious grin, she waited until I was leaning so far forward in my chair that I was literally on the edge of my seat. "The diner begins serving their seasonal apple pie at eleven."
My stomach growled, and my mouth started watering as visions of the most glorious pastry on Earth danced in my head. The Brown County Diner served their fruit pies on a seasonal rotation. September was the pinnacle of apple picking season in Indiana, so the diner would be serving my favorite pie until mid-October, when it would switch to pumpkin.
I glanced at the antique clock hanging on the wall above the television. A wedding present from Thornwell, for decades it had hung in Dad's office. Mom gave it to me when I moved into the apartment. The hands, which kept perfect time, were currently pointing at the ten and the eight.
Twenty till eleven. That manuscript isn't going anywhere. "Let me get Ursi's leash."
A few minutes later, my four-legged friend led us out the door and down the stairs. On the first floor, the door on the left opened to Renee's Gently Used Books, and the door on the right opened to the Sock Shoppe. I'd spent more than I cared to admit at both places,
Sloane leapt ahead of us and opened the front door. "Keep moving, girl. We can't let your mom get distracted by the new books."
"You mean like that one?" As we passed in front of the bookstore, I pointed at a hardback copy of The Endless River on display. It was Thornwell's final book. Published nine months after his death, it had maintained its lofty perch at the top of the best-seller lists for almost two months now.
My bestie stopped and placed her fingertips against the glass of the bookstore's window. As she stared at her father's work, she wiped what might have been a tear from her eye.
"Are people really calling it his best book ever?"
We resumed our trek to the diner.
I nodded as pride swelled within me at the small role I'd played in the book's publication. "A few people in the industry have mentioned the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker Prize."
"Wow." She shook her head. "Dad had his act together at the end, didn't he?"
"That he did."
An elderly couple staring at us with open mouths kept me from saying more. People often gave Ursi and me strange looks when we went for walks. Ursi ignored the stares. I had to make an effort to keep from laughing at the often- comical looks.
We got moving. There was glorious pie to be eaten. A few minutes later, we turned a corner, and the diner came into view. My stomach growled again.
"I think they heard that in Bloomington." Sloane bumped her arm with my elbow. "I'll put our order in."
While she was inside, Ursi and I got settled at one of the handcrafted, wrought-iron tables in front of the diner. Despite my status as a local celebrity of sorts for solving Thornwell's murder, when I was with my feline companion, I still had to dine alfresco. On a glorious, sunny morning like today, with Ursi at my feet, grooming herself in preparation for a nap, I had no complaints.
A few minutes later, Angela Miller, the diner's owner, emerged with a platter laden with two massive pieces of pie and a saucer of milk. Sloane was right behind her with a carafe of coffee in one hand and two mugs in the other.
"How's the best literary agent in town today?" Angela placed the pieces of pie on the table and the saucer on the sidewalk next to Ursi.
"Given that I'm the only literary agent in town, I'm good. How's the campaign?"
"Overwhelming." Angela brushed a strand of black hair out of her face. "I didn't expect running for mayor would be so time-consuming. On the other hand, I'm loving every minute of it."
"I think you'll be a fantabulous mayor." Sloane wiped whipped cream from her lips. She was already a third of the way through her piece. "And it's not just because this is the most delicious pie you've made ever."
Angela put a hand on her hip. "If memory serves, you said the exact same thing about my blueberry pie a few weeks ago."
"Because it's true," Sloane said through a mouthful of the heavenly smelling pastry I hadn't even had a chance to taste yet. "You are an artist, and your pies belong in that art museum Allie always talked about when she lived in New York."
"The Met or the Museum of Modern Art?" Angela propped one arm on the other so her chin fit on her fist. Thanks to the compliments, her undivided attention was on Sloane.
"Both, actually." My bestie scooped up a massive forkful of the pastry and took a picture of it with her phone. "Totally going on Instagram."
"That's high praise." Angela gave her a knuckle bump. "I need to get back inside, but that may have scored you another piece."
"Let's go then."
I chuckled as they went inside. Sloane's youthful exuberance was the perfect yin to my reserved, introvert yang. She had an irrepressible spirit that hadn't been extinguished by having to cope with her father's murder. It made me proud, and thankful, to call her my friend.
When I finally took my first bite of the pie, my taste buds exploded in ecstasy. Sloane hadn't lied. This might have been Angela's best pie ever.
As the two of us dined with deliberate slowness, a police cruiser pulled into a parking space not far from us. While Sloane was my oldest friend, the officer who emerged, Jeanette Wilkerson, was one of my newest friends.
We exchanged greetings, and Sloane asked her to join us. Despite the invitation, I couldn't help wondering if it was my bestie's attempt to go for a third piece of pie.
"I'm afraid I can't. On my way to see Jax Michaels, so I'm stopping for a coffee to go."
"You going to arrest him?" Sloane's eyes narrowed.
"Sorry, guys. Not this time." Angela gave Sloane's shoulder a gentle squeeze. Jax had been Thornwell's property manager for years until Thornwell fired him for failing to do work he'd been paid for. Sloane still held a grudge against the man. "He's complaining someone keeps stealing his Cannon for Mayor yard sign. Says it's happened three times now."
"Serves him right," Sloane said with enough venom to paralyze a bison.
"Any idea who's doing it?" I put my fork down.
Rushing Creek's current mayor, Larry Cannon, had been in office for almost eight years. Our relationship over the last year had been a roller-coaster ride, but, in general, he'd done a good job. Despite that, I'd jumped on the Angela Miller for Mayor bandwagon early.
"Probably just kids causing trouble, but the chief wants to send a message that we won't put up with stuff like this." Jeanette tipped her cap to us. "See you around."
After Sloane and I finished, we took a circuitous route back to my apartment. I wanted to tease her that she needed the longer route to work off the calories she'd ingested, but I couldn't. It was too perfect a day to be snarky.
Besides, as a professional trail runner, Sloane was in top physical condition and burned through calories like an airplane burned through jet fuel. Some extra sugar and carbs from time to time never seemed to hurt her race performances.
Instead, we went over the game plan for Sloane's move. As we talked, she held out her left hand so the half-carat solitaire engagement ring could catch the sunlight.
"At times, I still can't believe we're getting married." Her goofy grin warmed my heart. She'd had a crush on my brother since we were kids, but it wasn't until the last year that their relationship had gotten serious.
"And I can't believe Luke had it in him to come up with such an amazing ring."
"I know, right? Your bro is full of surprises."
"And we'll stop right there before we get into TMI territory." We exchanged a high five. Thanks to years of practice, we made perfect contact without even looking at each other.
As we parted ways a little while later, I took some time to soak in my idyllic surroundings and incredible luck. I'd made a spur-of-the-moment decision to leave the literary agency I had been working for in New York to come home. The decision was working out better than I could have ever dreamed.
I had family and friends close by. I was my own boss, with a book on the best- seller lists. I even had a boyfriend, even if we only saw each other on weekends. As I unlocked the door to my apartment and got back to work, I had a feeling some exciting things were in my future. I couldn't wait to find out what they were.CHAPTER 2
By the time my head hit the pillow that night, I'd finished edits on the thriller manuscript and sent it to my client with my comments. The manuscript would sell quickly, in days rather than weeks or months, so I couldn't wait to get it back with her final edits. I'd also spent the afternoon on the phone with editors at various publishing houses who were reading manuscripts I'd submitted.
I actually woke up before my alarm went off Friday morning, so, after a breakfast of mixed fruit and an English muffin, I put on my walking shoes and grabbed Ursi's collar. "How about a trip to the park, missy?"
Ursi looked up from her food bowl, licked a paw, and trotted to the front door.
All righty, then.
Winchester-Cobb Memorial Park wasn't a park. Yet. It was a fifteen-acre parcel of land that had been part of Thornwell's one-hundred-twenty-acre estate. Sloane inherited the property and donated the fifteen acres to the City of Rushing Creek so it could be developed into a park. She made a single request when she donated the land and the funds to build and maintain it.
She asked for the park to be named after her father and my father.
The city graciously accepted the donation and assembled a steering committee to oversee design and construction of the park. Mayor Cannon asked me to serve as the committee chair. It was a kind offer I couldn't refuse and was the first step in rebuilding the fractured relationship between us.
As steering committee chair, it was my job to serve as the liaison between the city parks department, which was overseeing day-to-day construction, and the community at large. Given that the park was being named in part after my father, who'd been my hero and mentor, I took the role seriously and visited the park at least once and often twice a week.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Genuine Fix"
Copyright © 2019 J.C. Kenney.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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