Dogwood Springs Cozy Mystery, Book 4
It’s not hard to find a family member who wanted to kill the gold-digging third wife. The trick is finding one who didn’t.
Libby Ballard, director of the history museum in the small town of Dogwood Springs, Missouri, can’t believe her good luck. Cordell Calhoun, the king of spicy fried chicken, is celebrating his 70th birthday by returning to his hometown to donate to several organizations, including the museum.
But tensions run high when Cordell insists on inviting his entire family, including his two ex-wives, their offspring, and his young third wife, Brittany, to the donor reception at the museum. The family dynamic is a ticking time bomb, and it’s only a matter of minutes before someone explodes.
Libby’s caught in the middle of the family drama but determined to make the event a success. Determined, that is, until Brittany drops dead at the reception.
With the police veering off in the wrong direction and each faction of the family pointing fingers at the other, Libby realizes she needs to step in to solve the mystery, bring the culprit to justice, and clear the museum’s name.
But in a situation rife with secrets and deceit, she’ll need to tread carefully, or she may become the next victim in a deadly family feud.
Join Libby, her golden retriever, and their friends as they try to unmask the 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
Friday, February 23
“This upcoming donor reception might be the death of me.” I looked up, swallowed back my dread, and once again started climbing the ladder.
As director of the Dogwood Springs History Museum, much of my job was fundraising, but the gift we were preparing to recognize at the reception had come as a complete surprise. I’d been pulling the event together amid hosting four school groups that had arranged months ago to visit the museum.
Whenever I had a snippet of time, I worked on a PowerPoint presentation about what the donor’s gift would mean for the museum, polished a press release to send out the day after the reception, or called to confirm details like the rented tables, chairs, and linens. Of course, I was incredibly grateful for the gift, but if I had to deal with one more special request from the donor’s wife—
“What is this, Libby, your fourth attempt to get these curtains rehung?” Alice VanMeter, who was holding the ladder, gestured to the teal, floor-to-ceiling draperies. Alice, the president of the museum’s board and its number one volunteer, had been invaluable over the past week.
“Fifth. I thought we had it last time, but that bulge at the top left makes me think one of the curtain hooks is loose.”
Back when the museum had been built as a private home in 1920, the room we were in had been an upstairs den. It was a nice size, and it had a lovely historic fireplace and large, tall windows.
When my staff and I cleaned out the room in preparation for the reception, we got rid of dozens of outdated displays, as well as boxes of useless files from the 1970s.
In the process of hauling one of those boxes, I bumped into the curtains. Dust billowed out and dead spiders rained down. Dead spiders were, of course, better than live ones, which really, really gave me the creeps, but dry cleaning those curtains had been essential. As old as they were, we were lucky they hadn’t disintegrated.
Unfortunately, taking down those curtains was a lot easier than putting them back up, especially because this room, like all the rooms on the second floor of the museum, had twelve-foot ceilings.
I went up another step on the wooden ladder, and it creaked.
I froze for a second, but the ladder seemed fine.
A blurry image of my pale face and dark hair reflected back at me in the window. I looked past it, at the cold, dreary day outside. It was getting dark, and we needed to get this finished. Besides, I was almost there.
I climbed a step higher, up past the point where I felt comfortable. Really, this was not what I’d envisioned when I’d chosen a career working in museums.
But being the director of a small-town history museum in southern Missouri involved all sorts of unusual tasks, a few of them unpleasant. Those were tasks I was willing to do, though, if it meant the museum would receive a large check from a donor. After all, it was my name, Libby Ballard, that was listed on the museum’s website as the director.
And as a director who’d been at the museum less than a year, a director trying to rebuild her life at age thirty-three after going through an ugly divorce and having her previous museum position sabotaged by her ex-husband, I was doubly motivated to make this job a success.
Finally, I was high enough on the ladder. I clutched the side rail with one hand and stretched my other arm up, reaching for the top of the teal velvet curtain so I could release the hooks between the loose one and the edge of the panel. There was no way to fix one hook in the middle. I had to go back to the problem and work my way out and—
A scream reverberated through the second floor.
I jerked back.
The ladder wobbled.
My heart raced, and I squawked out a weak yelp as I tried to climb down. If I fell, the curtains would be the least of my worries.
“I’ve got you,” Alice yelled.
The ladder stopped moving.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “That scream distracted me, and I let go.”
“Thank you for recovering so quickly.” I clung to the side rails of the ladder, gasping for breath. Still shaky, I made my way back to the floor. “But what on earth is going on?”
“It sounded like Imani, but are you sure you’re all right?” Alice’s brown eyes narrowed, and she looked me up and down.
“I’m fine, because of you.” I held my arms out, displaying that I was uninjured.
“Thank goodness.” Alice rested a hand on my shoulder.
Although the stylish cut of her chin-length brown hair made her appear younger, Alice was fifty-six, old enough to be my mom. One of the most nurturing people I’d ever known, she was not only vital to the museum, she was also a dear friend. Simply hearing the caring in her voice helped slow my heart rate back to normal.
“We’d better check on Imani,” I said. “I hope she didn’t get a call saying there was something wrong with the baby.” Imani Jones, the museum’s education coordinator, had only returned from maternity leave two weeks ago. Little Laila was three months old and, without question, the cutest baby I’d ever seen.
“Laila’s fine,” Imani said as she walked in from the hall. “Sorry I screamed. I just got so frustrated.” She shoved her Bluetooth earbuds into the pocket of her vintage sixties avocado green minidress. “The baby was up for hours last night, and I’m running on fumes.”
If I had to guess, I’d say Imani had been listening to music, and had no idea that her cry almost made me fall.
She planted her hands on her hips. “The problem—once again—is the current Mrs. Cordell Calhoun.”
I rolled my eyes. Her again. No wonder Imani was upset. Brittany Calhoun was the worst potential donor, or spouse of a potential donor, I’d encountered in a decade of museum work. “What does Brittany want now?”
“She’s started a new ‘health regimen.’” Imani put air quotes around the words, then drew her box braids together with both hands and pulled them over one shoulder. “She emailed and changed her menu request for the third time in less than a week. Now she says she wants a vegan meal.” Imani’s long eyelashes brushed her cheeks as she closed her eyes for a moment and drew in a deep breath. “The caterer is going to have a fit. Just yesterday, they were finally able to source the ethically raised specialty fish she wanted.”
“Oh, brother.” I wasn’t sure how much more of this woman the museum could take. Brittany, the third wife of Cordell Calhoun, the donor we were honoring, created new problems almost daily for the reception we were planning.
“Cordell is an idiot.” Rodney Grant, the museum’s curator, carried in a cardboard box and set it on one of the round tables the rental company had delivered yesterday. “I brought up the rest of those centerpieces, Alice.”
Rodney, who was in his early sixties, had a knee replacement done last August. It had taken a while to get his mobility back, but these days, he seemed to delight in what he referred to as his new lease on life, always looking for another way to be active.
Though the rest of us had only recently met Cordell and Brittany, Rodney was, in a way, related to them. His older sister had been Cordell’s first wife.
He shook his head, and the light glinted off his gray hair. “The man made his money selling spicy fried chicken and extra-flaky biscuits. What was he thinking, marrying a woman who won’t eat meat or carbs?”
“What was he thinking?” Imani let out an unladylike snort. “Brittany is twenty-eight, gorgeous, and built like a Barbie doll. The man’s about to celebrate his seventieth birthday, and they’ve been married, what, a year? There was no thinking involved when he proposed.”
I had to agree. If I thought too long about the fact that Cordell had married a woman young enough to be his granddaughter, it made my skin crawl. And Brittany was the poster girl for the phrase Trophy Wife. As well as a few other less polite phrases.
I turned to Imani. “Beg if you must when you talk to the caterer. One way or another, we need everybody happy at this reception.” Cordell’s donation would take the museum’s capital campaign past the goal for a much-needed elevator, and it would fund the remodeling of the room we were standing in, a large space on the second floor we’d be able to use for a display area once the elevator allowed accessibility.
When we learned that Cordell planned to celebrate his seventieth birthday by donating to several organizations in Dogwood Springs, one of them the museum, we’d made plans to hold a reception here in his honor.
“I still say this event would have been easier if we’d held it at La Villetta,” Rodney said.
“It would have,” I agreed. “But the mayor worked out an events schedule for all the organizations receiving donations. As the smallest group, we got Monday night, when La Villetta is closed.” I was grateful I’d found a caterer who was available. Dogwood Springs had several upscale restaurants up and down Main Street, but only La Villetta had a separate room for private events.
“Well, at least I got the seating chart figured out,” Alice said.
“Thank you.” Once again, Alice was a lifesaver.
“Happy to help,” she said. “But Cordell’s insistence that his current wife, his two ex-wives, his children, and his adult grandson all attend the reception made seating arrangements a little tricky.”
“I’m telling you, this whole week is a bad idea.” Rodney’s lips thinned.
I went back up the ladder, this time with Alice firmly holding the base. “The mayor said that every time Cordell is honored during his birthday week here in Dogwood Springs, the family is expected to be in attendance.”
Not my idea of fun, but when the family patriarch was the king of a fried chicken empire that included more than three thousand fast-food restaurants nationwide, people tended to go along with his plans. “The only event that’s optional is the last day, March 1, the opening day of trout season, when Cordell plans to go fishing.”
“I only saw the entire family together once before, when Cordell’s mother died,” Rodney said. “People walked around like the cemetery had been planted with land mines, trying to avoid each other.”
I fixed the loose curtain hook, climbed back down, and gave the window a nod of approval. One thing, at least, was within my control.
“My sister and Cordell’s second wife hate each other, and they’ve passed that animosity along to their offspring,” Rodney explained. “The only thing they agree on is that they both hate Brittany even more.”
“I’m glad you told me all that before I did the seating chart,” Alice said. “I’ve got three tables, six chairs at each, and I had to fit in eight members of the family, including Cordell and Brittany. I tried to mix people up more, but I finally put each branch of the family at its own table, then filled in with members of the museum board and city council.”
“Where am I?” Imani asked.
Alice walked to her purse, which was sitting on a nearby table, pulled out a sheet of paper, and pointed to it. “You’re here, with Cordell’s second wife and her family. And Rodney, you’re here, with your sister.” She turned to me. “The head table is you, me, the mayor, the city council president, Cordell, and Brittany.”
I found my name on the seating chart. Oh, goody. A whole meal sitting by Brittany.
After a cocktail hour where the entire group of eighteen—including Brittany and six family members who hated her—was supposed to chat amiably.
What could possibly go wrong?