From the USA Today–bestselling author of Murder at Archly Manner,a professional organizer tackles a mess of a murder while visiting her husband’s family.
Organizational whiz Ellie Avery is prepared for everything, including a visit with her quirky in-laws. But a promising week sipping Alabama sweet tea sours when she learns her husband’s Grandpa Franklin has passed away—and the police suspect very unnatural causes. Looking for motives among the mourners, Ellie gathers that quite a few relatives stood to profit from Franklin’s passing. When a little more sleuthing reveals Franklin’s mysterious ties to a legendary local author, another murder thickens the plot like a plateful of mud pie. While the grits cook slowly, Ellie needs to act fast if she wants to keep her untimely demise off what could be her last to-do list ever.
Don’t miss Ellie Avery’s great tips for preserving family treasures!
“[A] winning . . .mystery . . .. A rumor of hidden money, secret letters from a famous recluse, a fire, a threatening message, and a crazed gunman add to the cozy mischief.” —Publishers Weekly
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Mimosas, Mischief, And Murder
By Sara Rosett
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Sara Rosett
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I shot you."
Normally, that's not a sentence I want to hear, but since it came from Nathan, our four-year-old, who was buckled into his car seat in the back row of the minivan, and since he had brought nothing more lethal than toy cars, books, and Legos for this road trip, I decided to ignore it.
"No, you didn't," Livvy replied with the certainty of an older sibling. "I had my shield up." She casually turned a page in her middle-grade reader. She was working her way through a series of mystery books and I hoped her stack would last her at least until lunch. Her second-grade class was in the middle of a fierce competition to see who could read the most books. Livvy was currently in second place.
"My laser gun shoots through shields," Nathan countered, waving his gun of plastic building blocks at Livvy as he added shooting sound effects.
Livvy put down her book. "My shield is laser-proof."
Nathan stretched his pudgy arm into the air. "I'm shooting over it."
"You can't hit me. I'm invisible."
I glanced at Mitch. His expression was impassive as he focused his attention on the double yellow stripe of the two-lane Georgia highway. I could tell he'd blocked out the escalating war of words behind us. He was shut away again with his thoughts. He'd been like that a lot lately and I was trying to give him some space and not pester him.
"My lasers are invisible, too, and they can find you," Nathan said, peppering his words with more firing noises.
"Not if I fly away."
I knew from experience this game of one-upmanship could go on for hours. I gave up on ignoring the kids. "Look, kids, there are the peach orchards," I said, tapping my window as we passed the squatty rows of barren trees. "They prune the trees so they'll stay low to the ground and it will be easier to pick the peaches," I said.
"My lasers can chase you," Nathan said.
"Not if I fly supersonic."
"They go super—, super—," Nathan stumbled over the big word, caught his breath, and said, "They go real fast. They can catch you."
I put down my knitting and picked up a small tote bag I'd stashed at my feet. I hated to break it out so early in the trip, but we'd played the License Plate Game, which had fizzled after a few minutes because of the paltry number of cars on the road this Tuesday morning, and we'd already spied trees, billboards, cars, fences, and signs in our short-lived game of I Spy.
"That's it for the imaginary shooting game. No more of that," I said as I twisted around and handed the bag to Livvy. "See what you can find in there."
Livvy strained, grabbed the bag, and plopped it down on the seat between them. "Oh, I want—"
"Share!" I commanded. "Or it goes right back here with me. Besides, there are two of those."
Livvy released her death grip on the Etch-A-Sketch and burrowed through the bag for the second one.
I turned back to my knitting, glad that in our rush out the door this morning for our drive from Georgia to Mitch's hometown of Smarr, Alabama, I'd remembered to pick up the scarf I'd been working on for eons. I called it my never-ending scarf. I'd started it over a year ago, thinking I'd give it to my friend Abby for her birthday. It seems I was a tad overoptimistic when it came to estimating how long a knitting project would take.
I worked steadily, my needles clicking away as the miles slipped past. The usually lush green countryside was dominated with the muted colors of a southern winter—pale yellow grass, leafless dark brown trees and bushes, and the faded taupe and beige of the tangled undergrowth.
We stopped for lunch in Columbus, the only large city on the drive. By the time we'd crossed the state line, clouds covered the February sky, veiling the landscape with a gray sheen of mist. The view was still treed with loblobby pines and it didn't look that different from Georgia, but I knew if we continued to drive south and west across Alabama, the land would flatten as it sloped toward the Gulf. We'd made that drive once, when it was just Mitch and me, down to Mobile, then over to New Orleans. We'd been newlyweds. I glanced at Mitch's silent form out of the corner of my eye. We'd talked the whole drive during that trip.
The kids were chattering away in the backseat. They were angling and stacking books to make a house for the action figures that came with their kids' meals at lunch. I finished a row of knitting as I said quietly, "So you really think we should stay at your parents' house for over a week?"
Mitch pulled himself out of his reverie and said, "Yeah, why not?"
"Don't you think it might be a little too long? Livvy's going to miss so much school ..."
"It'll be fine," Mitch said as he looked away from the road to me. "Livvy's teachers said she can make up the work, right?" I nodded and he said, "You worry too much. Have I ever told you that?"
"No, never," I countered and saw a half smile appear on his face. "It's just that your mom is busy as it is and she'll feel like she needs to cook for us."
"She likes to cook."
"I know, but ..."
"Ellie, we stayed with your family for a week last summer."
"But we were at a beach house and everyone pitched in and cooked. Livvy was out of school. That was different."
Oh boy. Here we go. I'd never realized until we had kids how touchy an issue visits with our families could be. Mitch's job as an air force pilot meant that his schedule was always in flux, which made planning holiday visits difficult, to say the least. It was hard to keep visits evenly divided and make sure everyone got to see the kids. We ended up having visits on the fly, dropping in as we drove across the country during our moves or snatching a few days when one of Mitch's training classes happened to be in the same state as one of our families. Add in the tug-of-war between us wanting a yearly family vacation and our families wanting us to visit for special occasions, and I almost wished we all lived in the same town. But friends assured me that situation didn't solve the problem, either. "It only makes it worse," one friend had told me ominously. Of course, the chances of us ever living close to either of our families was so slim I didn't need to put that on my list of things to worry about.
I dropped my hands and the scarf puddled in my lap. "I'm glad we're going to be there to see your mom get her award. I'm just saying I don't want to impose."
During a phone call last week, Caroline, Mitch's mom, had told us she would receive the Realtor of the Year Award this week at an awards banquet. She'd won plenty of sales awards, but this was a prestigious award, given to a single Realtor each year, which recognized community involvement. Caroline was a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and regularly organized fundraisers for a local women's shelter.
"We're not imposing. We're family," Mitch said. "Besides, I'm down to 'use it or lose it,' so we might as well use it since Book Daze starts next week."
Mitch had a certain amount of time off that he couldn't carry from one year to the next. If he didn't use it, he lost it, so when we got the news about his mom's award, we decided to take a few days and drive over. I still wasn't convinced that we wouldn't be overstaying our welcome, but we were on the road and the plans had been made.
Livvy asked, "Book what?" She might have trouble hearing us when we told her to do her chores, but she had excellent hearing when anyone mentioned a book, library, or bookstore.
"It's a book festival," Mitch explained. We'd already passed a few signs for the festival, placed along the highway, that read, SMARR BOOK DAZE—ALABAMA'S FINEST LITERARY FESTIVAL.
I could tell the signs had been used year after year because most of the paint was slightly faded, except for a bright white square that had been repainted so this year's dates could be added. The length of our stay had mushroomed when Mitch's aunt Nanette called and insisted we stay until the festival began. She'd been inviting us for years and since we were going to be there anyway ...
I asked, "Aunt Nanette volunteers at the festival every year?"
"'Volunteer' is too mild a word for it. She runs it."
"Is a book festival like a book fair?" Livvy asked, straining against her seat belt from the backseat.
"Sort of, but it's probably bigger than the book fairs you have at school," I said.
"That's an understatement," Mitch added. "It draws authors from across the country. There will be all sorts of books, discussion panels, guest speakers, and door prizes. The Friends of the Library have a huge used book sale, too. Aunt Nanette is president of the Friends."
Livvy's eyes widened. Mitch and I both knew what was coming next as she said, "Can we go? Please? Please?"
"Of course," Mitch said. "That's one of the reasons we're staying for a whole week."
"Good. I can look for the new book in the Infinity Mystery series," Livvy said with a nod.
Nathan said, "I want a book, too,"
Livvy continued, talking over him, "The next one is called The Spiral Secrets and it's so new that the school library doesn't even have it yet."
"Can I get a book, too?" Nathan asked again. "I want one about trucks."
"Yes, Nathan, you can get a book, too," Mitch said. "Now, I know a game we can play."
The kids tensed in anticipation.
Mitch winked at me. "The Quiet Game."
The kids slumped back against their seats, groaning.
"I have a dollar bill for the winner," Mitch said.
"That's bribery," I murmured.
"An essential parenting skill. Although, I like to think of it as an incentive."
"Look, we're here," I said a few minutes later as we pulled into the circular drive in front of Mitch's parents' house.
"Mom's out!" Livvy said, delighted. "You said something."
"You're out, too, Livvy," Mitch said. "So that means Nathan is the winner,"
Nathan smiled and sat up a little straighter. I shot Mitch a warning glance as Livvy's face fell. She wasn't used to losing.
"Don't worry," he said as he pulled his wallet out of his pocket, "we'll play again."
The house was a low-slung rancher with crisp white-painted brick accented with black shutters. It sat far back from the road under a massive white oak, its leaves a bare tracery against the low, gray clouds. Two twisty, miniature evergreen trees in pots flanked the red front door. It was exactly the sort of house you'd expect a Realtor to own, a house with spacious rooms, including a huge kitchen, in an established neighborhood that would never go out of style. The circular drive was crowded with cars. "Why is everyone here?" I asked.
"I don't know. Maybe they wanted to see us," Mitch said, but I could hear the puzzlement in his voice.
Livvy bounced in her car seat, her disappointment over losing the game gone. "We can swim! I want to swim first!" The kids loved the pool in the backyard.
Nathan, never one to be left out of anything, caught her excitement and bopped in his car seat. "Let's swim. I can swim."
Swimsuits. I'd forgotten to pack the swimsuits, which would be the first thing on a long list of items I was sure I'd overlooked. I glanced at Mitch, but he was busy edging the minivan into the only slot left in the driveway, a tiny space behind Aunt Nanette's Mini Cooper, emblazoned with the British flag.
"We don't even know if the pool water is warm," I said, glancing at the late February sky. The mist had tapered off, but the clouds still hung low. Somehow, our visits usually coincided with the sticky humidity of midsummer.
We unloaded everyone from the van, a sharp breeze nipping at our jackets. As we hurried up the driveway, I saw a Lexus with a Crimson Tide license plate frame, and said, "Looks like Uncle Kenny and Aunt Gwen are here. In fact, it looks like everyone is here."
"I know. Weird. They're usually at their office until late." Uncle Kenny and Aunt Gwen had an extensive business empire that was a hodgepodge of different companies. They owned many of the roadside boiled peanut stands that dotted the South and had several shops that sold sports merchandise. Mitch didn't ring the doorbell. Instead, he opened the door and walked inside the hardwood entry with magnolia-tinted wainscoting. The scent of coffee and a hint of wood smoke filled the air. Before we'd taken a few steps, we were caught up in a whirlwind of hugs, kisses, and exclamations.
Mitch's aunt Gwen reached us first, her arms stretched wide to hug as many of us as she could at once. "What a fine-looking family y'all are. So sad that it happened last night. Funny how things work out—that y'all were coming over already."
Aunt Gwen released us and I caught Mitch's eye. He gave a small shrug. He didn't know what she was talking about, either.
"How are y'all doin'?" asked Uncle Kenny as he shook Mitch's hand. His voice was quieter than usual and had an especially solicitous tone that I'd never heard from him. He was usually about as subdued as a cavalry charge.
The y'alls continued to fly thick and fast through the air as we worked our way through the crowd, hugging and greeting everyone. I didn't see Mitch's dad, Bill, but his mom had both Livvy and Nathan in her arms, her silvery pageboy fluttering around her face as she squeezed them close. I wasn't sure how she'd managed to get them both on her hips, since she was so trim and delicate.
After she put the kids down, I gave her a hug as I said, "It's so good to see y'all." Now I was saying "y'all," too. It was hard to resist the pull of the southern speech patterns. They were so warm and friendly.
Caroline left her hands on my arms as she pulled away to look into my face. She lowered her voice. "So how are the kids taking it?"
"Umm ..." I glanced at Mitch as he came to stand beside me. "How are they taking what?" I asked.
Caroline's gaze ping-ponged between our faces. "You don't know? Didn't you get our voice mail? We figured you were already on the road by the time we started calling everyone and we just assumed you'd gotten it. I meant to call you back, but things have been topsy-turvy around here. I should have remembered that there's hardly any reception on that road." She released me, then reached over to tuck her arm through Mitch's and pull us a few steps away from the kids. I noticed the room had grown quiet and Aunt Gwen was on her knees asking Nathan about the Lego tower he clutched in his hands.
Looking like she hated to say the words, she said, "Grandpa Franklin passed away early this morning."
"What?" Mitch had pulled out his phone and was scrolling through his calls, looking for the missed call, but he stopped and his gaze shot to Caroline's face.
"I'm afraid it's true, honey." She rested one hand on her collarbone. "We're all in shock. Your dad is over there now with Aunt Christine, straightening things out. I'm so sorry to hit you with this right after you walked in the door. Aunt Christine found him last night. They rushed him to the hospital, but he died there."
The doorbell rang and Caroline ushered a dark-headed woman, bearing a foil-covered casserole in a glass dish, to the kitchen.
"Mitch, I'm sorry," I said.
Mitch said quietly, "I guess it wasn't unexpected. He was eighty-two."
"I know." I put my arm around his waist.
"You know what I just realized?" he said. "I don't have any grandparents now."
Mitch's maternal grandparents had died in a car wreck when he was a teenager and Grandpa Franklin's wife, Millie, had passed away nearly twenty years earlier after a struggle with cancer. I snuggled closer to him. "Technically, that's true, but my grandmother thinks of you as one of her own. In fact, I think she likes you even better than me. She always makes fudge when you come to visit and she only does that for her very most favorite people." The irony of the situation was that Mitch usually made healthy food choices and didn't eat many sweets, but he always ate a small piece, which left the rest of the fudge for me—not that I'm complaining. I love chocolate in all its forms.
When he didn't reply, I looked up at his face. He was fingering the buttons on the phone, staring at it but not seeing it.
Excerpted from Mimosas, Mischief, And Murder by Sara Rosett Copyright © 2011 by Sara Rosett. 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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