Secrets, lies, and a splash of moonshine: a classic country house whodunit with a distinctly Southern twist.
After losing her husband and her home, small-town girl Daisy McGovern moves in with her invalid mother at an old inn in sleepy southwestern Virginia. When the inn's eccentric proprietor, Aunt Emily, decides to throw a weekend party for a small group of friends and neighbors, everybody is excited--until a winter storm approaches and one of the guests is crushed by an antique bookcase during the night.
At first, the death appears to be an accident. But as the storm worsens and the sheriff is unable to reach them, suspicion slowly grows. Was it murder? After the inn loses power and a second death occurs, it's clear to Daisy that one among them is a killer. But who? The young, new, secretive maid? The antique-peddling pair of spinster sisters? Her not-so-welcome in-laws? The peculiar house-hunting couple? The supposedly stranded motorist?
With no way to leave and no way to get help, Daisy's only contacts to the outside world are her best friend Beulah and the always charming (and equally troublesome) moonshiner, Rick Balsam. Trapped with a clever and seemingly undetectable murderer, she must unravel the truth before the party ends with her funeral.
About the Author
CAROL MILLER was born in Germany and later moved to Chicago. She received a Bachelor of Arts from Northwestern University, followed by a Juris Doctor from Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. She currently lives in southern Virginia. Miller is the author of Moonshine and Murder.
Read an Excerpt
An Old-Fashioned Murder
By Carol Miller
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Carol Miller
All rights reserved.
"Any sign of the truck yet, Ducky?"
"Not since the last time you asked, which was about two minutes ago."
"You're sure?" Aunt Emily called.
Daisy restrained a smile. "I'm standing at the window, looking straight out at the driveway and the road. I couldn't possibly miss it."
There was a momentary silence, then a set of loudly clicking heels headed down the entrance hall of the Tosh Inn. Daisy turned from the tall casement window just as the heels rounded the corner of the parlor. She met Aunt Emily's blue eyes. Ordinarily they were shrewd — too shrewd for comfort, on occasion — but today they were more anxious than anything else.
"They should be here by now," Aunt Emily warbled in an equally anxious tone.
"The delivery was scheduled for three o'clock," Daisy reminded her. "It's only a little bit after —"
The clock on the marble mantle chimed the half-hour.
"They're late!" Aunt Emily knit her freshly manicured fingers together. "What if there's been a mix-up about the day?"
"There couldn't have been a mix-up," Daisy replied patiently. "You confirmed the date with the shop at least half a dozen times over the past week. I did it twice myself."
"But what if there's been some sort of a problem with the loading, or the truck broke down, or there's been an accident —"
It was a rare spate of fretfulness from Aunt Emily, who was the proprietor of the inn and not in fact Daisy's — or anyone else's, for that matter — aunt. She was usually a tough old biddy, a very apt expression that she was fond of using to describe herself. Although she was closing in on seventy, advancing age had dampened neither Emily Tosh's beauty nor her considerable wit. Silver hair and a smattering of laugh lines and wrinkles merely complemented her invariably fashionable appearance and razor-sharp mind. She did tend to dance to the beat of her own drum, however, which sometimes gave the impression of her being a tad eccentric, not to mention a few apples short of a bushel.
"If they don't come soon," Aunt Emily pressed together the nervous raspberry lips that matched her nails, "the guests will begin arriving, and there will be no furniture for them."
"There's plenty of furniture," Daisy countered, gesturing around the room. "Armchairs and settees, tea tables and coffee tables. Everyone will have a place to sit and," she added with a slight chuckle, "a place to set their drink."
Aunt Emily nodded earnestly in agreement. "Thank heavens for that, at least."
"Are you cold, Ducky? Should we turn up the heat?"
"No." She took a step back from the window. "I just got a chill. The wind must be picking up outside, because I felt a gust come through."
"The price of being an old Southern house, I'm afraid. Paper-thin walls and windows that never close quite right."
"I do wish that you could have replaced them, Aunt Emily. They're so drafty this time of year."
"The insurance simply wouldn't cover it," she responded regretfully. "The moldy rugs and draperies, yes. The stained and broken furniture, also yes. But the windows were fine and still plenty usable, according to the adjusters. Nothing that a little bleach and paint couldn't fix, they kept telling me."
"Well, bleach and paint sure don't fix the bugs and humidity that creep in during the summer or the cold breezes that whip around from corner to corner in the winter," Daisy returned dryly.
Aunt Emily nodded again. "But I think it came out all right in the end, don't you, Ducky? The parlor looks nice after the repairs, doesn't it?"
"Very nice! Especially when you consider what a complete mess it was only a couple of months ago."
It had been four months, to be exact. In October, the inn's well had gone wonky and ended up bursting into a geyser on the side lawn — flooding the parking lot, several of the outbuildings, and a portion of the grand Victorian behemoth in the process. The wraparound front porch and the stately parlor with its plethora of antique furnishings had sadly taken the brunt of the damage.
After weighing their collective options, Aunt Emily and the rest of the inn's regular inhabitants — Daisy and her sickly mama included — had determined to rally together and loyally stayed put. They didn't, in truth, have much of a choice. For a variety of reasons, they were all at the inn because they were otherwise without a home. But they resolved to make the best of the unfortunate situation — sharing rooms when necessary, helping with the dismal ensuing cleanup, and using whatever talents or abilities they possessed to assist with the lengthy list of repairs.
The work was finally completed in early February, and the Tosh Inn stood once again in all of its majestic, yellow-gabled glory. Aunt Emily had wasted no time in organizing a reopening celebration. The inn had never officially been closed, but that made not the slightest difference to her. She was an extremely social creature by nature and never missed an opportunity to play the role of hostess, which she always did with great skill and flair. A small weekend party for a select group of friends and neighbors was the perfect way to show off the inn's renovations. The only hiccup in the plan was that some of the new — albeit antique — furniture that had been purchased as part of the parlor redecoration was now tardy in its arrival.
"Is that the delivery truck?" Aunt Emily said hopefully.
Daisy looked out the window. A vehicle had turned off the main road onto the long driveway leading up to the inn. It was a rusty old pickup.
"Wait a minute." Aunt Emily squinted at it. "Doesn't that belong to —"
"Rick," Daisy answered.
Aunt Emily glanced at her questioningly. "What's he doing here?"
"I have no idea."
The pickup halted in the middle of the driveway, at the far end of the front walk.
"Oh, he can't park there!" Aunt Emily protested. "It'll interfere with the delivery."
She hurried from the parlor into the hall, and a moment later, the front door of the inn swung open with a heralding squeak.
Trailing after her, Daisy shook her head. "I don't know how you managed it, Aunt Emily. The whole entrance was fixed from top to bottom, but somehow that door still squeaks like a screechy cat toy."
"It works much better than any fancy, overpriced alarm system," she replied gravely.
Daisy didn't argue, knowing full well that Aunt Emily could — and would — go on at length about the numerous safety and snooping benefits of squeaky doors and creaky steps, another one of her perennially favorite topics. Even though the front porch steps of the inn had also been repaired after the flood damage, somehow they still creaked, too. It was Daisy's guess that at the conclusion of the renovations, the amply skilled carpenters had departed with several gratis jars of Aunt Emily's highly coveted gooseberry brandy in their deliberately creak-and-squeak-producing hands.
Together they watched Rick as he sprang from his truck and walked with long, lean strides toward the porch. He was wearing worn jeans and construction boots, with a navy wool shirt over a white T-shirt. His hair was dark and tousled. When he saw them standing at the open door waiting for him, he laughed. It was an arch, mocking sort of laugh, perfectly in keeping with his personality.
Richard Balsam was an exceedingly clever and incorrigible country boy, fond of guns, blueticks, and corn whiskey. A childhood friend of Daisy, he was an inveterate snake charmer, with lots of money from his extensive illegal moonshine enterprises. As part of his likker empire, Rick owned Daisy's ancestral home, which was a continual source of irritation to her, along with his tendency to appear — and then just as unexpectedly, disappear — at the most inopportune moments. Rick could be loyal. He also had a capricious temper.
"Hello, ladies," he drawled. "You look lovely today, Aunt Emily. As always."
As always when Rick flattered her, Aunt Emily blushed. "Why, thank you, Rick. You're so kind. Isn't he kind, Ducky?"
Daisy rolled her eyes.
"Now don't be jealous, darlin'," Rick chastised her. "You know I've got a soft spot for Aunt Emily."
"Only because she's got a soft spot for your sweet talk," Daisy retorted.
Rick grinned. "I'd talk plenty sweet to you, if you'd let me."
She rolled her eyes again, but she couldn't refrain from smiling a little, too. The man really was incorrigible.
With a wink, Rick changed the subject. "I heard that you were having some furniture delivered this afternoon," he said to Aunt Emily. "I thought I'd come by and see if you needed any help."
"Yes, we are expecting a delivery," Aunt Emily acknowledged, with some surprise. "How did you know?"
He shrugged. "I have my sources."
Daisy knew what that meant. "Let me guess," she responded wryly. "One of the furniture deliverymen moonlights for you? Hauling antiques during the day and then bootlegging 'shine at night?"
"People tell me things," Rick answered, not elaborating further. He dropped his voice to a more intimate tone and locked his dark eyes onto her. "I wish you wanted to tell me more things, Daisy."
Like the inescapable gravitational pull of a planet, his bewitching gaze drew her in. Then she reminded herself that she had to be careful. Rick might seem as cool as the moon, but he could burn her just as brutally as the sun. With effort, Daisy blinked and turned away.
"I tell you plenty of things," she said lightly, pretending that she hadn't understood him. "So does Aunt Emily. But we didn't tell you about the inn's new furniture, because we don't need any help with it."
"But we very much appreciate the offer," Aunt Emily added graciously. "We're having a little party to celebrate the redecoration. If you'd like to join us, Rick, you're more than welcome."
Daisy frowned at her.
"You're more than welcome," Aunt Emily repeated, ignoring Daisy's displeasure. "However, you will have to move your truck for the furniture to arrive."
Although she could feel Rick looking at her, this time Daisy refused to meet his gaze. Her eyes went to the thick gray clouds that were gathering on the horizon, inching their way toward the weak winter sun.
Rick watched her for a moment longer, then he said, "You know how much I enjoy your parties, Aunt Emily. They're always chock-full of surprises. But I'm afraid I can't stay." He motioned toward the sky. "There's a storm coming. By the looks of it, it could be a big one. I have to check on a few things. Batten down some hatches, just in case."
Daisy breathed an inaudible sigh of relief. To her chagrin, Aunt Emily proceeded to leave the invitation open.
"Well, you know where we are, Rick, if you change your mind."
"I might just do that," he replied. And with a parting nod, he turned toward his truck. When he reached it, he paused for a minute and glanced back at the inn. Finding Daisy still standing on the porch, Rick cocked his head at her, and his lips twitched with a hint of a grin. Then he jumped in and drove away.
As he disappeared down the road, Aunt Emily clucked her tongue. "I hope you know what you're doing with that one, Ducky."
Daisy's brow furrowed.
Aunt Emily gave a sudden shout of excitement and pointed. "Look, it's them! They're finally here!"
A new vehicle had pulled into the driveway, a small delivery truck. A tiny white hatchback preceded it, and a big black pickup traveled after it. They were all driving slowly and close together, like three odd-size geese waddling awkwardly in a row.
"It's no wonder that they're late," Daisy said, chuckling. "They probably left the shop well over an hour ago, but with the Fowler sisters in the lead, they never got faster than a crawl, even on the highway."
For the last thirty years — which was three years longer than Daisy had been alive — Edna and May Fowler had owned a little antiques shop in a nearly invisible dot on the map called Motley. It was Aunt Emily's favorite antiques shop not only in Pittsylvania County but also in all of southwestern Virginia, which was quite an accomplishment. Aunt Emily went crazy for old folk art, so she made a point of visiting every store, shack, and tumbledown shed in the area that sold anything remotely resembling an antique, no matter how broken or rusted.
"Go check the parlor for me, please, Ducky," Aunt Emily directed eagerly. "We have to make sure there's nothing in their way when they bring in the furniture. Quickly now!"
Daisy was tempted to respond that there was no need to hurry. Based on the current snail's pace at which the procession of vehicles was moving up the driveway, it would take a while before they reached the parking lot, stopped and organized themselves, and began unloading. But she didn't want to dampen Aunt Emily's enthusiasm, so she headed dutifully inside and surveyed the room.
The edges of the floral-patterned Persian carpets were all flat. No stray magazines or throw pillows were lying on the ground. The path to the empty spot between the two casement windows was clear, earmarked for the new longcase clock. Likewise, the path to the empty spot next to the marble mantel was also clear. The barrister bookcase was slated to go there. There were additionally two tip-top candle stands on the delivery list. Aunt Emily was constantly changing her mind about where she wanted them, but they were comparatively small and easy to move, so it didn't really matter where they were initially placed.
"Looks good!" Daisy reported. "No curled rug corners or odd bits on the floor for anybody to trip over."
"Who does that black pickup driving behind the delivery truck belong to?" Aunt Emily asked from the entrance hall.
"Drew," she answered.
Aunt Emily appeared instantly in the parlor. This time when Daisy met her blue eyes there was no anxiety in them. With the arrival of the furniture, it had been replaced by their usual shrewdness.
"He's very prompt," Aunt Emily remarked.
It was meant as a compliment. Aunt Emily didn't approve of folks being fashionably late. On the contrary, she firmly believed that it was only good manners to be punctual, particularly for events that she hosted.
"He certainly must be keen to see someone," Aunt Emily continued, with a sly smile. "Otherwise he wouldn't be the first guest for the party. The first official guest," she amended, no doubt thinking of Rick.
"Drew's not the first guest," Daisy corrected her matter-of-factly. "The Fowler sisters were invited, too, and their car is in front of the others."
"True," Aunt Emily conceded. "But Edna and May don't ogle your behind every time you saunter out of the room, Ducky."
Daisy's cheeks went a bit pink.
The sly smile grew. "Just so you know, I put Drew in the Stonewall Jackson room for the weekend. Not that I expect him to actually spend the night there."
"Oh, Aunt Emily —"
"You've been dating the man since last fall, more or less," Aunt Emily cut her off briskly, "so there's no need to get all bashful about it. You're a married woman, not a child."
That was precisely the problem, in Daisy's mind. She was still a married woman, and it bothered her. Only, she couldn't seem to get around to doing anything about it. Matt McGovern was gone. There was no question about that. He had driven off one morning nearly five years ago and never come home again. The man had been an ardent gambler, a far too heavy drinker, and his choice in friends — Rick Balsam included — hadn't helped the situation any. But even with all that, he was still her husband, and Daisy was by nature loyal.
Drew Alcott, a bat conservationist whom she had met in the nearby mountains just prior to the inn calamity, had been remarkably understanding. When Daisy had told him about her estranged husband, Drew had called Matt several choice names and then let the subject drop, which had been just fine with her. They were both very busy. Drew traveled a lot for his job, and Daisy struggled on a daily basis to keep her little bakery, Sweetie Pies, afloat. That had kept their relationship on the lighter side. But Daisy realized that the time was slowly coming when she would have to make some sort of a decision about which direction she wanted to head in with him. Eventually she was either going to have to fish or cut bait, so to speak. She figured that the party — their first overnight weekend together — was the perfect opportunity to better test the water.
Excerpted from An Old-Fashioned Murder by Carol Miller. Copyright © 2016 Carol Miller. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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