Dogwood Springs Cozy Mystery, Book 1
*Finalist in the 2022 Indie Cozy Mystery Tribe Book of the Year Awards*
A new job, a new friend, and a newly adopted furry companion. Then there’s the dead body in her new office.
Libby Ballard, director of the history museum in the small town of Dogwood Springs, Missouri, is eager to build a new life. She’s only been in town a few days, but already she’s settled into an apartment, made friends with a neighbor, and adopted a lovable dog.
But the idyllic charm of Dogwood Springs is about to be shattered by the shocking discovery of murder. When Libby walks into her new office, she finds the lifeless body of her predecessor.
The shadow of a killer looms over the museum, threatening to derail Libby’s new job before it even begins. To make matters worse, the police wrongly target one of her staff members as the prime suspect.
If Libby wants to clear her colleague’s name and save her own job, she must delve into secrets and lies to find the truth.
Join Libby as she hunts for the real killer!
If you like a cozy mystery with a pet who will win your heart, friends who feel like family, and a hint of romance, you’ll love this series!
This is a clean read with no profanity, sex, or graphic violence.
Read an Excerpt
I spent the last leg of my trip from Philly, driving southwest from St. Louis to Dogwood Springs, trying not to get pinned in between semis and second-guessing my move to a small town in Missouri.
At first, when I got the job in Dogwood Springs, I’d been excited. But somewhere along the drive out—maybe in Indiana—doubts had set in. What if moving here was a mistake?
Over the past couple of years, I’d made a lot of mistakes. When I first noticed things beginning to sour in my marriage, I ignored the problem, focusing all my attention on my job as visitor services coordinator at the Henry C. Branch House, a prestigious colonial-era home and museum in Philadelphia.
After Reggie admitted he’d been cheating on me and said he wanted a divorce, I blundered on, numbed by the pain of having to work every day at the museum with both him and his girlfriend, a woman eight years younger than me and nine years younger than Reggie. Worse yet, probably because I was trying to avoid being around him, I didn’t pick up on the fact that as time passed, Reggie was busy convincing our boss, the owner of the Branch House, that my position was no longer in line with the current mission of the organization. In January, a month after our divorce was final, I was out of a job. A few weeks later, Reggie’s girlfriend got a massive promotion to a position almost identical to my previous job.
And, as a final massive misstep, I allowed the divorce and the job loss to shake my confidence so deeply that I flubbed my one chance at a great new job, the interview I managed to get at the Smithsonian.
So, yeah, a lot of mistakes.
Mistakes that left me, newly single Libby Ballard, on my own, starting over as the director of a small history museum in Dogwood Springs, Missouri, my mother’s hometown.
Not where I’d hoped to be professionally when I hit thirty-two.
About ten miles from Dogwood Springs, I drew in a deep breath and raised my chin. For better or worse, the decision was made. I’d felt excited about the position when I was here for the interview. Maybe all this uncertainty was simply nerves.
I left Interstate 44 and pulled into town with three bulging suitcases, a few pieces of furniture, a stereo system with a turntable that had belonged to my dad in college, a mountain of cardboard moving boxes, and my mother’s family pearls, which she’d given me when I turned twenty-one. With the help of GPS, I managed to drive the U-Haul and my silver Camry, which I was pulling on a hitch, down the narrow side streets to my new apartment, the ground floor of a plain, two-story house built in 1900.
My new place wasn’t anything fancy, but Dogwood Springs did hold promise. The community, known as “the prettiest town in Missouri,” was a tourist mecca. People came to see the springs, to stay at the quaint bed and breakfasts, to visit the nearby winery, and to shop and dine in the beautiful downtown.
Even Elm Street, where I’d be living, was quite nice. The street was lined with older homes, some lovingly refurbished, and some, like the house I would share with an upstairs neighbor, that could use some TLC. But no matter how fancy the house, the yards and porches were filled with color. Even my simple rental had a pot of black-eyed Susans and purple petunias by the mailbox. Well-established trees shaded the sidewalk on both sides of the street, offering relief from the summer heat.
After popping the last of my Advil, I helped the movers—three teenage grandsons of a friend of my mom’s who happened to be free this first Saturday in June—unload the van. When the one who was in college offered me a lift back from the van drop-off spot, I gratefully accepted. Once we returned to my new apartment, I tipped him an extra twenty and went inside, trying to picture myself living in the space.
A small entryway opened to a door to my unit and stairs to the second floor. My front door led into the living room, and I had one bedroom off to the right. A bathroom and closet were located behind the bedroom, and the kitchen, with a door to the backyard, was behind the living room. A window unit air-conditioner chugged away in one of the tall living room windows. Not central air, but it seemed to be doing the job. And the place was spotless. Not even a cobweb on a light fixture. Believe me, I’m no fan of spiders, so I checked.
It wasn’t much space, but it was bigger than the apartment I’d gotten when my husband and I separated. At the time, I’d let my ex keep the bigger pieces, bargaining for some of the better small antiques, like the marble-topped table I used as my nightstand.
After looking around, I emptied a single box, the one marked “essentials,” which held my favorite black tea, imported from Yorkshire, England, along with a mug, my tea kettle, bedding, shower curtain and towels, toilet paper, and a package of shortbread cookies I’d brought along for emergencies.
At that point, the thought of going to the store for groceries and opening boxes to find dishes was out of the question. I searched the internet, found a pizza place, and ordered a thin-crust mushroom and black olive and, with a slight nod to good health, a house salad. Maybe after some dinner, I’d rebound and make a grocery run.
I called to let my mom and dad know I’d arrived safely and collapsed onto one of the few large pieces of furniture I’d hauled from Philly, the couch my ex and I had once bought for our family room.
Half an hour later, a knock on the door from the entryway jerked me awake.
I blinked, startled by the unfamiliar sight of the cardboard boxes filling my new home and almost positive I’d locked the door from the outside to the entryway. I dug my wallet from the bottom of my oversized purse and peeked out the narrow window beside my front door.
A blond woman about my age stood in the entryway, holding a stack of napkins, a small salad container, and a pizza box. Not one of those thermal pizza carriers, just the box.
I opened the door. “Hi. What do I owe you?”
“Nothing.” She grinned at me. “I’m Cleo Anderson, your housemate. I just got home and saw the delivery guy. I haven’t even been upstairs yet.” Her words bubbled out as she handed me the pizza box, salad, and napkins.
“Oh, thanks. Libby Ballard.” I tapped my chest. “Let me pay you.”
“Nah, we’re good. Hold on, I’ve got a housewarming gift for you.”
Cleo darted up the stairs to her apartment, and her golden retriever wriggled its way into my living room.
I flipped over the one cardboard box I’d emptied, positioned it near the couch as a makeshift coffee table, and set the pizza box on top.
Cleo’s dog rubbed my leg until I petted it, then sniffed near the pizza box.
I told it a firm “No.”
It walked away from the pizza and made quick work of checking every room of my apartment. Returning to the living room, it tipped its head at me, perhaps wondering where Cleo had gone, and flopped down in front of the fireplace.
“I’m back,” Cleo called out loudly.
I hurried to the entry and found her standing at my door with her arms full.
She handed me a bag that held a half gallon of milk, butter, a loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, and a jar of peanut butter, then followed me into the kitchen and held up a bottle of Pinot Noir and two red Solo cups. “Welcome to 46 North Elm Street.”
A rush of warmth filled my chest. “Wow. Thank you.” I loaded the perishables into the fridge, truly touched by the welcome.
Over the past year, I’d gone through some lonely times. My ex got more than his fair share of our “couple friends,” and my best friend in Philly recently had her first child and disappeared into diapers, late-night feedings, and Mommy-and-me outings.
I backed out of the fridge. “This is so kind of you.”
Cleo shrugged. “This house is old and has some issues. But I love living here, and I hope you like it too.”
“Well, I do like a house with history.” I thought of my antique pie-crust table and the three boxes of LPs from the ’70s that I had yet to unpack. “Actually, anything with history.”
“That fits. You’re the new director of the local history museum, right?”
I paused. “Starting Monday. How did you know?”
“The landlord’s a cousin of mine. He told me.”
I led her into the living room, gestured to the couch, and opened the pizza box. “Would you like a slice?”
“I already had dinner at my parents’, but maybe one.” She tipped her head toward the wine bottle. “Shall I open that? It’s a screw top.”
“After today, a little wine sounds wonderful.” I slid a slice of pizza onto a napkin, opened my salad container, and drizzled on the dressing.
Cleo poured some wine in each cup, handed one to me, and sat down, then bounced back up to take a piece of pizza.
She struck me as one of those high-energy people who talked fast, worked fast, and probably could eat an extra slice of pizza anytime she wanted without gaining an ounce. She was taller than me, maybe 5’8″ to my 5’5″, and slimmer. Her blond hair was cut in a pixie with long bangs, far more stylish than the shoulder-length bob I’d worn for years. She had skin almost as light as mine, although I’d probably win out in a contest to see who got sunburned the fastest. Her oversized glasses gave her a dramatic air, and even in tan capris, tennis shoes, and a cobalt blue T-shirt, she somehow looked pulled together.
“This is much more fun than unpacking.” I raised my cup.
“I’m glad we have a chance to get to know each other.” She touched her cup to mine as if to say cheers and took a quick sip. “So, tell me about yourself.”
I settled farther back into the corner of the couch. “Well, I’m 32, divorced, born in Columbus, Ohio, and until three days ago, I lived in Philly.”
“And your mother was Adelaide Dorsett before she married, right?”
“She was.” I tried to look nonchalant, but Cleo must have noticed my surprise.
“You’ll be shocked how much people know about you, living in a small town. I used to hate it, but after a while, I got used to it. And you, of course, being related to Elsie, are practically royalty.”
Elsie Dorsett, my great-great grandmother and a former mayor of Dogwood Springs, had instigated many of the changes that made the town so attractive to tourists. Apparently, that ancestry was still a big deal. Not quite big enough to be royalty, though.
“I’ll have to unpack my crown.” I chuckled, snagged another napkin, and wiped my fingers. “So, what about you?”
“I run a hair salon, creatively named Cleo’s.” She grinned. “I’m 30, I’ve never been married, and I’ve lived here all my life except for eight years in my late teens and early twenties when I studied hair design and worked at a salon in New York City.”
Ahh, she was a hair stylist. That explained why her honey-gold hair had perfect highlights and lowlights, as opposed to my own hair, which was plain dark brown. “I have to say, I’m surprised you moved back.”
“So were a lot of other people.” Cleo rolled her eyes.
“And what about your dog? What’s its name?”
Cleo looked over at the golden retriever, lying contentedly in front of the fireplace. “Oh, that’s Bella. She’s not mine. She belonged to the man who used to live in this apartment, Don Felding. He was quite elderly and passed away.”
A dull ache formed in the back of my throat. No wonder the dog had wandered through my apartment. She was probably searching for her former owner. “Poor Bella.”
“I know.” Cleo’s face clouded. “She’s the sweetest dog ever. I should have told you who she was before you let her in. It feels so natural to have her here that I didn’t think of it at first. She lives with Don’s daughter, Melinda, in a house that’s maybe eight blocks away.” Cleo pointed the direction of my bedroom, which I thought was south. “She works at a hospital up in Jefferson City, an hour away.”
I called the dog over, found a number on the tag attached to her collar, and grabbed my cell phone. “I’ll let Melinda know Bella’s here.” After a brief conversation, I hung up. “She says she’ll be by to get her in a couple of hours once her shift is over and she makes the drive home.”
Bella looked up at me.
I ran a hand over the soft fur between her ears. She was a beautiful dog, well-behaved and gentle, and she seemed to bask in my attention. If she was going to be here a while, the least I could do was offer her some water.
I opened a box marked “Dishes,” unwrapped a blue-flowered serving bowl, and filled it with water from the kitchen tap.
Bella took a long drink, then returned to the fireplace and laid down with a soft snuffle.
“I have a feeling,” Cleo said as I returned to the couch, “that Bella really misses Don.”
“I bet. Change is hard.” I should know. Getting divorced and losing my job were hard enough, and now I’d moved. And as far as prestige went, my new position in Dogwood Springs was a cliff-drop down from my role at the Henry C. Branch House.
Plus, small town life was bound to be different, possibly a bit dull. I was determined to do my best, though, to adjust.
Cleo and I visited a while longer and, between us, ate half the pizza. Not long after she went upstairs, Melinda Felding arrived, apologized profusely, explained that her backyard gate might not have been latched properly, and called to Bella.
The big dog stopped to rub her head against my leg, looked up at me with doleful eyes, and followed Melinda to her car.
I waved and went back inside, my heart heavy.
I made up my bed, took a hot shower, and was asleep within five minutes.
The next day arrived bright and sunny, and as soon as I got dressed, I stepped out onto the concrete front porch of the house. The humidity had yet to arrive, the sky was a vivid blue, and the trees on Elm Street—which were actually mostly maples—were a rich green. I watched a robin yank a worm out of the front yard and then went back inside.
I dawdled over breakfast, working a crossword puzzle on my phone, and then unpacked the kitchen. A little before twelve, I ate a peanut butter sandwich and moved on to unboxing my clothes. I laid out a black skirt, black flats, and my favorite green shirt, the one that was the exact color of my eyes, to wear the next day, my first day at the museum.
By three that afternoon, I’d made good progress unpacking my clothes. I decided to reward my efforts with a drive around Dogwood Springs.
I went out my kitchen door, passed the outside metal stairs that led up to Cleo’s back door and little patio, and crossed the yard to the separate double garage.
I carefully backed out, grateful I didn’t drive a larger car, turned around, and headed out the gravel drive between numbers 46 and 44 North Elm Street, turning right on Elm.
Half a block later, I made a left onto Fourth and took it to Main Street, the heart of downtown. I’d been here before, both when I was a child visiting my grandparents and when I came into town for the interview, but I looked at things a lot more closely now that Dogwood Springs was my new home.
My parents still lived in Columbus, Ohio, where I’d grown up, but Mom thought my move to her hometown was the smartest thing I’d done in years. According to her, Dogwood Springs was a gem among small towns. I had to admit she was probably right.
Downtown had been pretty in April when I came for my interview. It was even prettier now, in June, with the maples that lined both sides of Main Street fully leafed out. The huge baskets that hung from each antique light post had held pansies in April but were now heavily weighted down with pink and purple and white petunias. And as I’d noticed before, there were upscale restaurants, a large library, a candy shop, a bookstore, a gift shop, a bakery, and a store called “It Always Fits,” which had a window display of scarves, purses, and jewelry. All of this and more within walking distance of my very reasonably priced apartment. I didn’t want to be disloyal to Philadelphia, but Dogwood Springs seemed really nice.
At four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in June, the sidewalks along Main Street were filled with shoppers, including a man eating a big piece of fudge, a girl of about ten walking a pair of small, fluffy white dogs, and four women in matching hot pink T-shirts that said “Eat, Shop, Sleep. Repeat.”
The history museum, which was a large, white, two-story Greek revival, sat at the far edge of the business district, two doors down from the bookstore. What could be nicer? I could take a sandwich for lunch some days, eat it quickly, and then pop over and find a new book. Maybe this move would turn out to be all right.
I drove slowly past the museum, giving myself a pep talk aloud about the new job, and followed Main Street out of the downtown area until it became a two-lane highway.
After a mile or so, I turned onto Red Barn Road and drove out toward Ashlington, my mother’s family home. The road wound past corn and wheat fields and through woods of oak and cedar. Excitement bubbled in my chest as I crossed Cedar Creek. I might be all grown up, but part of me was still five years old, eager to celebrate Christmas or the Fourth of July surrounded by my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins at Ashlington.
As I got closer, I slowed. Did I really want to see the house? What if it was too depressing? What if the owners came outside while I was driving by? I wasn’t sure I wanted to explain the pull the house and land had on me.
But maybe they would understand. Maybe they had felt it too. Maybe that’s why they bought the place.
I rounded the last curve, and a bittersweet ache pinched the base of my throat. There it was.
The pale peach house sat atop a ridge, and beyond its wide backyard, the rolling Ozark hills spread out, fields alternating with forest in a glorious green patchwork. As for the house itself, Ashlington was two-and-a-half stories of Victorian architecture at its finest. A wide front porch arced out to form a rounded entryway, and a matching balcony above provided a private porch that had been my grandmother’s breakfast spot. The roofline sported twin chimneys, gingerbread details, and—my favorite feature—a turret. When my grandparents, Birdie and Bob Dorsett, owned the place, the turret room had been a library with walls lined with musty classics, old encyclopedias, and at least two decades of the Farmer’s Almanac, well-worn by my grandfather, an avid fisherman who trusted the predictions for good fishing days.
My ancestors who built Ashlington had made their money in lumber. When I was a young child, my grandparents had still owned the local lumberyard, been pillars of Dogwood Springs’ society, and held a fabulous party each Christmas for friends, employees, and family.
By the time I was twelve, though, my grandparents were deceased, the lumberyard had closed, and the house had been passed on—half to my Aunt Gloria, the eldest, and half in smaller shares divided among my mom and her other sisters. Once my grandparents were gone, the family ties loosened. Oh, my mother and her sisters still talked on the phone every weekend, but the family had scattered across the country, and we never got together much. Finally, two years ago, after Aunt Gloria’s husband died and upkeep on the house got to be too much for her, she moved to Texas to be closer to her daughter. She sold the house to some retired tech mogul, bought a new sunhat, and took up bridge. My mom, whose mouth always tightened when she spoke of the sale, said Aunt Gloria had been fleeced. In my mom’s mind, Ashlington was a million-dollar mansion.
Today, as I drove closer, I spotted scaffolding at the west side of the house, where a project to repaint the trim appeared to be nearing completion. I knew what my mother had gotten after the sale, and I knew what Aunt Gloria had kept. To be honest, the tech mogul might have been kind—or perhaps not yet used to prices in rural Missouri. Ashlington, for all its charm, looked like a money pit.
I let out a sigh. Whatever its value, it still called to my heart. But even if I could have afforded it, Ashlington now belonged to someone else.
I gave a small wave, bidding farewell to the house, my happy childhood memories there, and any dreams I might have of living in the family home. Then I drove past, found a wide spot to turn around, and headed back toward town.
Toward my future.
At a supermarket on the edge of town, I loaded a cart with food and paper towels and everything else I could think of that I might need in my new home. Next door to the grocery store, I spotted a Mexican restaurant with a parking lot already crowded for dinner and a sign that said they delivered. Another win for Dogwood Springs. Mexican was my favorite. I made a mental note of the name of the place and headed home.
Ten minutes later, reveling in the lack of traffic, I pulled back into my garage.
I hefted one reusable bag in each arm and walked toward my kitchen door.
There, waiting on the welcome mat, was a rather muddy Bella.
“I’m sorry,” Melinda said when I called. “This time, Bella found a way out under the fence. I don’t know what I’m going to do. She’s terribly lonely at my house, but I’m working a lot of double shifts. What with that and the time I spend commuting and the way Bella misses Dad, I don’t know if she’s ever going to like living with me.” She let out an audible sigh. “I have to admit, I promised Dad I’d make sure Bella had a good home, but I never really wanted a dog.”
“That is difficult.” I pictured Bella, all alone for those long days. She clearly loved people, and she was such a nice dog. She’d even seemed appreciative when I wiped the mud off her paws with some of my new paper towels.
“There’s a woman at the hospital who says she’ll take her, but”—Melinda hesitated—“between you and me, I’ve met her kids, and I’m not sure they’d be nice to Bella.”
I sank onto the couch.
Bella trotted over, tags jingling, and laid her head on my knee. She looked up, a plea filling her soft brown eyes.
My heart twisted. “Um, can I call you back in a few minutes?” The words slipped out before I’d thought them through.
“Oh…” Melinda sounded confused. “Sure.”
I hung up and ran a hand down Bella’s back. I was bound to be busy starting a new job. But I had been hoping to adopt a pet, and I knew how to care for one, since we’d had dogs, cats, and even a hamster when I was growing up. Plus, I only lived a few blocks away from my job. I could pop home every day at lunch and let Bella out. And if I had extra work, I could bring it home in the evenings. It wasn’t like an extra shift at a hospital an hour out of town. By five-thirty every day, I’d be home, free to take Bella for a walk and spend time with her.
I made a quick call to my landlord and called Melinda back. “Would you be willing to let Bella stay with me for a week, on a trial basis, to see if we get along?”
She eagerly agreed and said she’d be right over with Bella’s bed, her brush, a giant bag of dog food, and a few toys.
I hung up, looked down at Bella, and drew in a deep breath. “Okay, girl, let’s give this a try.”
She gave me a happy doggie smile and wagged her tail.
A tingle of hope welled up inside me. Maybe, just maybe, this move might not be a mistake.
Maybe it was the fresh start I needed.
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